As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head. The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. In fact, the author says, “there really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.” And he goes on to ask, “why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”
Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. The succinct answer is that natural scientists are not comfortable with ruthless extrapolation of past trends.
I think the fundamental fallacy is the seductive trap that looking at our glorious past provides a template for how our glorious future must look—at least in overall flavor. Stepping back, this is a fantastic perspective if one imagines a priori that the human experience will be essentially monotonic: onward and upward. But as soon as one admits the possibility of dynamics like overshoot, peaking, downturn, etc., the principle that history is our best judge suddenly seems silly and naïve. Just because we’ve managed to carry on so far is in itself no guarantee that this will always hold true on a finite planet. It may be a decent short-term model, but not a backstop offering indefinite comfort.
Glaringly absent in the article is any reference to energy, or fossil fuels, or why the unbelievable explosion of population in the last few hundred years coincides with our rapid exploitation of these finite resources. Indeed, the history of population growth prior to fossil fuels was itself no good predictor of how we would skyrocket after that. And this works both ways: the history of how we have expanded into an empty world is not a good predictor of what happens when we increasingly run into resource limits in a filling ecosphere. Game changers happen, and while they may have been biased toward the positive in the past (during humanity’s growth spurt), they can just as easily smack us the other way.
The author concludes that: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems.”
The only limits, huh? I will not be sticking this one in the box labeled “wisdom.” In this conflict of ideas, we pit nature against our imaginations. I believe I know the ultimate winner.
As a highly trained natural scientist (although not in the fields of biology, ecology, etc.), the reason I fail to subscribe to historical precedent as our most prescient guide is that nature doesn’t respect our dreams, or our historical trends. Maybe this cold, hard fact is overwhelming, so we make up stories about how it will all be okay in the end: in much the same way that religious traditions give us stories to cope with the inevitable death we all must face. Sure, it’s a downer, but nature doesn’t care. And me, the sucker: I still love her all the same.
A few days after the original article, the author had a chance to clarify a few points. The statement of “no carrying capacity” is qualified, but on the whole the main problems I expressed above still stand.
I thank Eric Michelsen and Josh Spodek for bringing my attention to this article.
I had the exact same thoughts when I read that article after a peak oil critic tweeted that article. The original article is definitely skewed to sound like there’s no population problem at all, just go back to sleep. There’s just a tiny slice of nuance at the end that says we need to fix social systems in order to do it.
I think the real conclusion to be made is that the earth can’t support populations to grow to a certain point under a given social arrangement – just like the entire planet can’t drive ’67 Chevies to work from 50 miles away. Our social system has adapted – we carpool in Honda Civics – to match oil production limits at a given price. He also argues that population crashes have never happened, it’s always been social upheaval. I’m interested in reading the article he links about it, but my guess is history has shown people kill each other in a war or disperse when a new social paradigm is needed, rather than running out the clock on the old paradigm. Which is a nice way of saying “hey, we reached our limits.” It’s like a different take on the “peak oil demand” idea going around lately. We won’t want that oil because it’s too costly, not because we hit a geological limit. Whatever you call it, it’s not something to kick the can down the road on, and that’s what the problem with the original article was – it seemed too dismissive.
Did that author explain the collapse of the Anasazi? They did not disperse because we have never seen their presence/influence anywhere else.
One more thought – like you said, history is full of rising and declining trends in growth, but we’ve never seen such a huge spike like this. It’d be foolish to assume a decline following this spike would be as gradual as in the past.
I had also read this article partly in disbelieve and partly in horror of the arrogance it seems to be based on.
On the other hand, it just shows that positive messages are what people want to hear and get promoted. Promote a positive message or found an occult sect if one wants to warn of pessimistic the-world-is-going-to-end scenarios.
“Promote a positive message or found an occult sect if one wants to warn of pessimistic the-world-is-going-to-end scenarios.”
For whatever reason, those do seem to be the only two options if you want to be widely heard. Either the singularity is near, or our civilization is about collapse and revert to a medieval state (for the umpteenth time).
For a deeper understanding of why many (most) people sincerely believe there are no limits, or why humans are not causing climate change, or why middle east wars are about democracy rather than oil, or why every tribe has had a god, I highly recommend the book Denial by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower.
They propose a new theory that humans had to evolve the ability to deny reality before they could make the intellectual leap that differentiates them from all other animals. I found their arguments compelling and very enlightening.
Thank you for the referral on the Denial book.
Without a doubt, that article is the stupidest thing I’ve read. Maybe, ever. The author is a design teacher. Let him eat iPhones.
No, he’s a visiting professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (design of what?). The original article said “Erle C. Ellis is an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County,” and the clarification post says “Who I am. I am an environmental scientist (Ph.D. in plant biology from Cornell University, 1990). More about my research here.”
Larry Summers was made the president of Harvard after he pushed for the repeal of Glass-Steagal, which upended the global financial system as his fellow sociopaths looted it and then walked away, richer than ever, by transferring their losses to you and me. President Obama, who tells us to accept universal surveillance as “a tough choice” he made on our behalf in spite of the 4th amendment of the constitution and, within the month, advocated the attack of a country at his sole discretion, reportedly taught constitutional law at Harvard. Harvard’s employment standards and practices are, perhaps, not what they once were.
So? The author still isn’t a “design teacher”.
If there is no limit on population growth, why did it not continue to be exponential, limited only by its own recent past and accelerating all the more, the more it has to accelerate with? In reality, it stopped growing exponentially around 1970, and thereafter grew only linearly, seventy to eighty million a year every year, as if it had hit its limits and could afterward only grow as our slowly growing economy allowed it. If the writer of that article is right, the greater population should have created its own economic conditions for self-accelerating growth.
And why are there still poor people? They never answer this question, as if the poor are so natural they don’t need explaining. But by the theory of self-catalysing awesomeness, everybody should be well-off by now, if surplus labor and scarce resources are not a problem.
“everybody should be well-off by now, if surplus labor and scarce resources are not a problem”
Your analysis ignores [ever-present] greed and stupidity.
It is strange that anyone would invoke history as evidence that we will just keep growing. That is based on the last 300 years of history. But if you go further back, you see dozens of examples of the classic ecological overshoot-and-collapse cycle. History is not at all kind to the cornucopian view – they are in effect arguing “This time will be different. Trust us”, and they are doing thiss with complete disregard for the laws of nature.
The real question is why is the NYT publishing crap like that?
That was my thought. That’s serious sample bias. Ignoring all of those past civilizations that collapsed and populations that died, clearly we humans have a history of progress allowing for more and more population over time!
One of the many good reasons to ignore the Times. Hard to believe now that I used to read it every day…
“That was my thought. That’s serious sample bias.”
There’s cherry-picking on both sides.
“[From GM:] if you go further back, you see dozens of examples of the classic ecological overshoot-and-collapse cycle.”
Very few civilizations have actually followed a pattern of overshoot and collapse. It’s possible that the western Roman Empire (although not the eastern) collapsed because of over-farming. However most civilizations did not follow a similar pattern.
Most civilizations died because of military invasion. Far more civilizations were lost to Mongol invasion than ever collapsed because of resource exhaustion.
The American civilizations such as the mayan civilization etc probably collapsed because of climate changes which they had not caused. Similarly, Indus Valley civilization probably collapsed because of drought due to climate changes.
A few civilizations (Mongol, the USSR) collapsed for political reasons which had nothing to do with resource exhaustion.
I know a few people argue that Khmer civilization collapsed because of overuse of resources, but I think that’s a fringe view.
In fact, I am hard pressed to come up with any example of a major civilization which collapsed because of overshoot and resource exhaustion, aside from the western half of the Roman Empire, and even in that case, it’s arguable.
I’m not saying that resource exhaustion couldn’t happen eventually, however it has not been a “classic” pattern in history.
Jared Diamond makes quite a few good cases of resource overuse and environmental damage in Collapse (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse:_How_Societies_Choose_to_Fail_or_Succeed
“It is strange that anyone would invoke history as evidence that we will just keep growing. That is based on the last 300 years of history.”
In the article, he was clearly referring to the paleolithic technological revolution, the agricultural revolution, and the industrial revolution. The human population increased by an order of magnitude each time, from under 10 million to 7+ billion. It was not just in the last 300 years.
Growth rates were lower by orders of magnitude in pre-industrial history. The last 300 years do stand out like a sore thumb in human history and any extrapolation from that brief period is foolish. Also, any argument that we will overcome the problems of the present because we have overcome problems in the past is unscientific. Mind you, I’m not saying it’s *impossible* that we overcome problems like Global Warming and resource overuse. I’m not a prophet. What I’m saying is that extrapolation from the past is not a valid scientific argument. And it is true that some doom-sayers are making the same mistake by extrapolating from cherry-picked past examples. Either way, it’s bad science. But the cornucopians clearly are the worst sinners in this respect and need to be called out for it.
“What I’m saying is that extrapolation from the past is not a valid scientific argument.”
That is not the point I was making. I wasn’t extrapolating from the past. My point was that the comment author had seriously mischaracterized what he had read. The original article clearly was not talking about the last 300 years.
You are right about that. I was being sloppy. Elis’s examples are indeed taken from the deep past and he stresses that “Two hundred thousand years ago we started down this path.”
I would still argue that the argument is based on the experience of the age of fossil fuels – without ever naming it. It is just not true that when you take the long view of human history, what you see is a steady, monotonous upward curve. What you see are plenty of ups and downs. It isn’t even true generally speaking that pre-industrial agriculture was more productive than the ecosystems it replaced. Only from the vantage point of our recent history is there the appearance, or illusion, of steady progress and only from that perspective does it seem to make sense to say that we *only* need to continue “increasing land productivity” and all our problems are solved. Because that increase in land productivity due to industrial agriculture 1) comes at a high cost, and 2) will certainly reach biophysical limits, and may so soon.
Haven’t read it yet, but the Marchetti link in the clarification is public (unlike the Science one) and I’m tickled that it gives a trillion person figure. I have in the past estimated that a trillion person Earth running on the solar energy of 2/3 of the land is theoretically and optimistically possible. (1/3 packs the humans in at Manhattan density, and also covers that area with solar panels, 1/3 is greenhouses for optimal condition agriculture, 1/3 and the oceans are wild.)
I think the pieces aren’t stupid or wrong, but are muddy in what their point is. Rather than try to rehab them, I’ll just give my own position, which may be similar:
it is likely possible to support the current and likely future population at a decent standard of living, so we needn’t fatalistically feel we’re doomed or that huge genocide is the only way out. It is maybe possible to support much larger populations at a decent standard of living, through intensification processes analogous to those of the past. But the scenarios require physical capital accumulation ranging from “large” to “mind-boggling” respectively, so we shouldn’t push it (i.e. encouraging population stability is good), and we really shouldn’t be complacent that things will work out in the absence of sensible collective decisions, because they probably won’t, especially for poorer people.
We’re not inevitably doomed, so there’s a point to doing something, but we do need to do something.
I’d also note that ‘we’ isn’t homogenous. The countries which are doing something, or which are in better geographies, have a better chance on their own than those which deny there’s a problem. Though of course resource wars or trade disruption can hurt everyone, and I don’t know of any country doing enough yet, like having granaries in the event of hemisphere wide crop failure. Then again being the only country with granaries might be asking to get invaded.
Or do to the math:
assume 3e3 Watts/capita, so need 3e15 W.
assume 500 g dry mass of food/capita/day, so about 1.8e14 kg/year
assume 20,000/km2 density (in between Manhattan and NYC), or 50 land m2/capita
1.5e14 m2 of land
5e13 m2 residential = 1e12 people
roofed in solar power at 100 W/m2, gives 5e15 W
5e13 m2 optimal agricultural, at 3 kg dry biomass/m2/year (jungle/swamp levels), = 1.5e14 kg/year. Hmm, short. Alternately I once saw 80 people/acre for taro production, which is 50 m2/capita, which works out.
This ignores 1/3 of the land and all of the oceans, which properly managed (fertilized) could provide lots of food. Also ignores nuclear power or space solar. OTOH, it also ignores the realities of land diversity and the embedded energy of all the buildings, and the food part feels like it’s pushing it. 300 billion seems a more likely limit but a trillion is maaaybe possible and a nice round number; “300 billion person Earth” doesn’t trip off the tongue as well as “trillion person Earth.”
Oh right, water. 1e12 people using 1e6 kg each need 1e18 kg fresh water/year. Land rain average is about .7 m/m2, so a total of 1e14 m3 = 1e17 kg, and 1/3 of that is for the wilderness third. So need a lot less water or more recyling/desalination. At 6e3 J/kg for reverse osmosis, we need 6e21 J/year, or 2e14 Watts, so handwave it into the 3e15 energy budget.
Obviously meant more as a viewpoint-changing exercise than a rock solid proposal, but the fact that the numbers ballpark out as at all close is certainly surprising.
You cannot have humans taking over 2/3rd of the primary productivity of the planet (which, BTW, would still not support a trillion people), because there is something called ecosystems that are necessary for maintaining the planetary homeostasis, which will be completely wrecked if that happens and in turn this will quickly cause the death of most or all of that trillion of people. Those ecosystems are already being wrecked by 7 billion..
Estimates of 6e13 kg carbon from terrestrial productivity. 2/3 is 4e13, I needed 1.8e14 for food. Need a 5x boost, which is huge. OTOH, most of the Earth doesn’t have the conditions for optimal productivity: too cold, too dry, not enough nutrients, etc. This is why I specified greenhouses. So 5x isn’t impossible. Even in conventional farmland terms, adding fresh water to the Sahara would create new farmland almost as big as the entire United States.
Looking at the physics: 1e12 people need 1e14 Watts of food. 5e13 m2 receiving 200 W/m2 at 1% photosynthetic efficiency = 1e14 Watts of dry plant matter. Though only half that might be edible, unless we eat algae and duckweed. Tapping the oceans might be needed. OTOH is 1% a hard limit? It’s a common figure, but sugar cane does 8%.
And 1e12 is an amusing arbitrary target. If it’s marginal, then 300 billion may be doable, and 100 billion easy. That’s still way more than expected, or than we have now. ‘easy’, that is, for people who already have the capital needed, which we don’t today.
“ecosystems” is very vague. Farming is an ecosystem, especially if we recycled wastes properly, it’s just more edible than the wild ecosystem. Food plants produce oxygen and fix nitrogen as well as wild ones do. Greenhouses would raise pollination as a concern, but this is “difficulty for research”, not “obviously and categorically impossible.”
We’re wrecking ecosystems now by doing different things than postulated in this scenario. It’s not just a matter of how many people there but how they live and what they do, which is basically the point of Ellis’s article. 1 trillion solar-powered people who recycle can be more sustainable than 7 oil-fueled billion who piss their nutrients into the ocean and belch fossil fuel CO2 into the air.
But as Tom has written multiple times, even if a clean steady-state is sustainable, getting there from here in time may be very hard and expensive. We don’t have the clean power and recycling infrastructure, people don’t live in Manhattans, hell most of the world population isn’t particularly educated. Just because a trillion person Earth might be possible doesn’t mean we should be complacent! Or that we should aim for that in particular. But knowing that a developed lifestyle for 10 billion or more is actually achievable gives us something to aim for other than the death or sterility of 6/7th of the human race.
No, I think the Op-ed is thinking bigger than that. We don’t need 2/3 of the productivity of the planet, any more than we need the amount of land that hunter/gatherers needed. We need enough food for X number of people. So where to get that food?
Genetic engineering of course, but not run of the mill GMOs like today. We’re talking seriously modified organisms. So instead of corn that grows in the ground and is annual, someone in a lab comes up with corn that’s perennial, or “better yet” that grows hydroponically, but grows on a vine (“cornzu”!) And not on just any hydroponic fluid, but some fluid containing sugars produced by solar power and some modified bacteria. The modified corn “mostly” uses this supply of sugars to make the corn – actual solar gets used by the plant for the final forming of the ears, not the energy going into the kernels. (Recalling that corn and C4 photosynthesis still only puts away about .5% of the sun energy as food energy.) Not a plant we’d recognize as corn, but our distant ancestors wouldn’t recognize modern corn either.
So, bump the efficiency of corn from ~.5% to about 12%, and you produce 24x the food. That’s the kind of thing the op-ed guy is talking about.
1. This is not happening on any time scale that can realistically save us from collapse (and I do happen to know a thing or two about those subjects)
2. Boosting productivity does not solve the fundamental ecological issues with agriculture. Those will remain even if the deus ex machina vaporware you just made up somehow materializes
3. The Liebig law of the minimum remains valid
1. We’re just fully analyzing genomes now. They only completed wheat a few years ago. There are already plenty of people who realize that DNA is just a form of software. How much do you want to bet there’s some set of labs at Monsanto working on things like that?
2. What do you think that *they think* the fundamental ecological issues are with agriculture? They’re already willing to dump plenty of chemicals on most fields. From the perspective of most people in the ag business, the fundamental ecological issues are applying fertilizers in the most economical way, applying water in the most economical way, and using the most productive seed, in order to maximize photosynthesis and storage of energy as grain.
3. Yes, but the minimum right now is the limit of photosynthesis and plant biology. They’re working hard around the edges to deal with those limits.
I’m an organic farmer. I’d much rather we work to optimize soil foodwebs and plant breeding. However, I’m also a software developer. Let’s not kid ourselves about where industrial ag is headed. We’ve only barely begun to touch plant genetics. They’re going to start doing serious genetic modifications as soon as they figure out how to reverse engineer that software and start making changes. They’re already replacing significant chunks of that code. I don’t see anyone stopping them. Heck, in the US, they can even patent their “creations”.
1. I analyze genomes for a living, I am willing to bet I know more about the state of the field than you do. Also, the software analogy is quite wrong (and is usually made by creationists, not that I am accusing you of that, but if creationists are saying something, you probably don’t want to cite it as an argument)
2. The fundamental ecological issues are: 1) soil exhaustion and degradation; 2) we have been fixing that by mining fertilizers, which is unsustainable; 3) impact on ecosystems, both through their displacement and after that;
3. We are not talking about individual human beings here, i.e. the question is not how you feed humans, but how you keep civilization going. The limiting factors are different. Also, there are fundamental theoretical limitations to the efficiency of photosynthesis, and another limitation (and that one is completely insurmountable), which is how much sunlight falls onto a given unit of land area. The impossibility of perpetual motion machines is well established, why is it that people still refuse to accept that?
1. My wife analyzes genomes for a living too. I might be willing to take your bet, but I don’t think Monsanto is going to let us know what they’re up to.
And I’ve never heard a creationist say the genome is software, not that I’ve spent much time listening to them talk about that or anything else. But you say it’s wrong, and I say you don’t understand software. I can assure you, you do *not* know more about software than I do.
3. Which is why my example bypasses the limits of photosynthesis. You saw that, right? This has nothing to do with perpetual motion machines, but rather the much greater energy capture from photovoltaics than from photosynthesis, and a way industrial ag might increase food production by substituting one for the other. Which would have a significant bearing on keeping civilization going, unless you think feeding people is not important to keeping civilization going.
All the genetic modifications to food crops have merely allowed us to maintain or slightly increase the original productivity of that land compared with the original natural ecosystems. This is done by engineering plants that can use up the fertilizers and irrigation we pump onto the land
The most productive agricultural ecosystems are happy sugarcane plantations, which have a productivity of up to 4 kg/m2/yr, maybe twice at most of what the original ecosystem had. Similarly, corn in the US is maybe about twice what the original plains would have had. These are not large gains, and they only allow us to continue to remove huge quantities of biomass form the site without decreasing future productivity.
Genetic modification of crops to increase yields is nothing magic — the resources still have to come from somewhere. And that’s currently fossil fuels, phosphorus, and irrigation. Without these, the genetic modifications are useless.
I can’t share the enthusiasm for solar panel-assisted photosynthesis efficiency boosts to 8% of incident sunlight. I see no historical precedent for such fantasies, even over all of the dramatic breakthroughs of the Green Revolution of the last few decades.
Enthusiasm??? I think you missed the organic farmer bit. If I had my way, we’d just ban GMOs right now. (And implement some hefty carbon taxes while we’re at it.) No, I just think we’re underestimating the kind of change scientists and engineers will make when we fully understand how plant genetics works.
Here’s a page describing plant metabolism: http://www.biology-online.org/11/9_plant_metabolism.htm. The questions are: what would a plant do with more ATP and/or NADP?, could ATP or NADP be produced cheaply?, could they be injected into plants in an economical and useful way? are there genetic modifications they could make to plants to increase their ability to utilize additional ATP/NADP? I don’t know, but I bet they’ll try, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they have some success. I think that’s what that writer was talking about.
“No historical precedent” just means no one’s done it yet. Some things that haven’t been done will never happen, but others will. 20 years ago it would have been a complete fantasy that farmers would someday spray their fields with something that would wipe out the weeds, but let them grow their crops like usual. I think they’re cheating and it will come back to bite them, but it’s not a fantasy.
I think we’ll just have to wait 30 years and see what they’ve come up with.
This is priceless (from the NYT article):
Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet
So what then is adequate? The Abrahamic religions? Voodoo magic? The FSM?
I heard Wes Jackson from the Land Institute speak a few weeks ago. He talked about Technological Fundamentalism and how we must break out of the fallacy that Technology will always save us. That idea is so pervasive in western culture we must make a concerted effort to fight against those ideas.
My main thought reading that piece was Richard Feynman’s story of reading the science textbooks — http://www.textbookleague.org/103feyn.htm — and the absurdity and hopelessness of the lack of understanding and confusion by people who were supposed to educate… but were instead creating more misunderstanding and confusion.
I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I couldn’t believe the irresponsibility of the New York Times, the innumeracy of the author, and the lack of respect for nature.
I wanted to pick a few choice quotes to justify myself, but the more I read the piece, the more I find inanity in every paragraph. I don’t want to quote the whole article and qualification. Maybe I’ll just pick the cream of the crop:
“There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.”
How could anyone write that? Everyone has the link to see the full context, but the context doesn’t help. He draws conclusions from irrelevant evidence. The author’s later correction states “Of course our planet has limits.” Then why did you say otherwise?
As best I can tell, the author was trying to say that humans will find ways beyond his imagination to sustain more people. If he had just said that I could back him because that says nothing about nature, only his ignorance and lack of imagination.
It’s a sad spectacle – for decades, if not centuries, the human population debate has oscillated between “population growth (or ‘overpopulation’) is the cause of all evil” and “there is no population problem”. I have been fighting these simplifications for some time now and it never seems to change.
It has been correctly argued that emphasis on population tends to sweep under the rug the immense disparity in resource consumption between poor and rich countries. (see http://www.monbiot.com/2009/09/29/the-population-myth/). I would agree that population is not (currently) THE problem. Population stabilization is not a sufficient condition for sustainability. But it should also be obvious that population stabilization must necessarily be reached, and the sooner the better. That is, ceteris paribus, the smaller the global population the better the chance that humanity will be able to reach a sustainable existence. It is correct to point out (as Monbiot does) that the poorest – and fastest growing – segment of humanity hardly produces any greenhouse gases. But most of us also believe that their living standards should be raised quickly, which won’t happen without increased ecological footprint. The greater the numbers, the more difficult it will be to balance sustainability and development. It surely ain’t rocket science to figure this one out.
Ellis is correct to say that “the total number of people that can be supported by Earth’s resources can not be predicted merely by knowing the total amount of matter or surface area on Earth.” We don’t know with any certainty what the “carrying capacity” is. But it should also be obvious that the closer we get to the limit, the more difficult it will be to achieve sustainability and decent living standards.
Another point that is often overlooked is that population is not just an abstract global problem. In most places, it is a very concrete local problem. Poor countries with high birth rates are overwhelmed and destabilized by the need to provide schools, health care, housing, and jobs to their growing number of youth. Population growth is not the root cause of failing states but it certainly is one of several contributing factors.
Finally, as I pointed out earlier, a pro-natalist ideology based on doomsday predictions of “demographic crisis” is gaining steam – just look at Paul Krugman’s latest post (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/more-on-the-coming-french-imperium/). This ideology is extremely dangerous and requires attention and rebuttal.
More details at http://www.slideshare.net/amenning/the-human-population-challenge
Malthusisan predictions of doom have been consistently wrong for over a century.
With sufficient energy, there are no limits. Run out of hydrocarbons? That’s okay, well make them from the carbon dioxide in air. Run out of minerals? That’s okay, well simply refine lower and lower grades of ore, or mine asteriods, or refine seawater. Run out of water? That’s okay, we’ll simply build desalinization plants. Energy is the only limit on our activites, not physical matter.
So the only question is – do we have infinate suplies of energy? Of course we do. Nuclear and solar power are largely unlimited. We just have to make them cheaper.
Just consider food. How in the world can we feed 50% more people with the land we have? Let’s see….vertical farms, food printers, GMOs, ditch biofuels, vegetarian diets, improved yeilds in poor countries…actually it is pretty easy to come up with a mix of solutions to solve the problem without too much pain. 10 billion people? We could probably take 20 billion, if we were smart about it.
If solar energy was unlimited we would not exist. The planet would have been incinerated a long time ago.
Nuclear is very limited too, even if you mean thorium reactors and other (at least at present) vaporware – those will last a long time, but a long time from our very short-sighted perspective of time, not on the timescales we should be thinking of.
Estimates of the total available fission power go as high as “ten billion Americans for a billion years”. This gets into filtering U from seawater which is replenished by crustal erosion, but still. And it’s not really on us to be planning for more than 10,000 years at this point.
I’m not sure how much breeder reactors are vaporware vs. simply being uncompetitive with existing light water reactors, which have lots of investment and U-235 currently so cheap that it’s not worth reprocessing plutonium. I’ve seen a figure of a breeder reactor costing 25% more than a LWR; against the prospect of energy crisis collapse that’s awesome, but it’s not something anyone’s going to build under normal circumstances. Russia’s BN-600 has been operating since 1986, so a useful power-generating breeder isn’t total vaporware.
Solar isn’t unlimited, but the duration might as well be for humans, and the power flux is sizable for even a trillion people, except for how inefficient food production is.
Even if nuclear energy were unlimited, we couldn’t use it without overheating the planet to oblivion. The host of this site, Tom Murphy, has written a lot about physical limits (e. g. https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/). Also, “vertical farms” are an absurdity (www.monbiot.com/2010/08/16/towering-lunacy). You’d have to provide artificial light at a staggering inefficiency.
It is correct that feeding 9-10 billion people is physically well possible. It is a different thing to say that it is “easy”. Easy to think up solutions, perhaps (eliminating waste and reducing meat consumption in the rich world would go a long way) but certainly not implementing them given the reality we inhabit. Once again, why do we have to oscillate between doomsday scenarios and naive cornucopianism? None of these are conducive to actual problem solving.
So there’s this turkey who gets hand fed every day by this human.
The turkey feels great and doesn’t worry about the future since every feeding provides further evidence that humans enjoy feeding and taking care of turkeys.
Then one day the human shows up with an axe…
Ironically, the turkey was most confident in its relationship with the human just prior to the axe incident…
There are a lot of “turkeys” in this world…
Very cute. So…in your example, are we the farmer or the turkey? You seem to think the later, I say we are the former. And of course by “we” I don’t mean everyone in the world. Just a significant enough fraction that aren’t hung up of false choices put forth by Malthusian prophets of doom.
Again, there is sufficient matter to feed and cloth and house every single person on Earth many times over. The technology is avalible to transform this matter into anything we might need or desire. It’s all about energy and economics, and fortunately, there is all the energy we need avalible with currently avalible technology. Los Alamos laboratory estimated in 2008 that gasoline could be synthesized using nuclear power, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and water at a cost of $4.80 a gallon. Assume the price is $8 gallon . Double the milage of cars and we are spending exactly the same as we are today on fuel. We never run out. Never. As long as energy is nearly infinate, and it seems to be, so is our supply of everything.
There is sufficient thorium,and uranium in the earth’s crust to last 1,000s of years at several times current consumption. There is sufficient solar power to provide all our power needs many times over. At a certin price point, all elements and compounds on the periodic table become avalible at high volumes.
There is a lot more slack in the line than you think….
Prices (including taxes) are much higher than $4.80 in much of the world already. Where’s the conversion?
Just like oil reserves, carrying capacity is not a fixed value, but a dynamic concept – not unlimited, but influenced by factors like technology, prices and demand. On the technology front, the Haber-Bosch process has given a dramatic boost to carrying capacity. Food and feed prices have encouraged the conversion of rainforest to cropland (with disastrous consequences on biodiversity). And the demand for food and feed could diminish if people switched to a vegetarian diet and reduced food waste.
Anyone who puts a number on carrying capacity must also state the conditions under which this number would be valid.
I am not sure you understand what is meant by carrying capacity. We are not talking about how one can temporary boost carrying capacity but what the long term carrying capacity is, i.e. how many individuals can be supported indefinitely.
Sure, we have increased the carrying capacity by mining natural gas, oil, phosphates, and soil. But what happens when those are exhausted? And no, “We will think of something” does not count as an answer – infinite substitutability is on the same intellectual level as young-earth creationism and belief in Santa Claus. There is no and there cannot be a substitute for phosphorus, for example.
“Sure, we have increased the carrying capacity by mining natural gas, oil, phosphates, and soil. But what happens when those are exhausted? And no, “We will think of something” does not count as an answer”
There are obvious substitutes for natural gas and oil. I don’t know why this point is repeatedly raised. We don’t even need to “think of something”.
“There is no and there cannot be a substitute for phosphorus, for example.”
Why don’t we start recycling phosphorous from sewage, once it becomes scarcer, a few hundred years in the future? Wouldn’t phosphorous become more expensive when supplies begin to diminish? In that case, a sewage treatment plant could sell phosphorous and make money from it. Would people fail to take advantage of that obvious, large profit opportunity?
“infinite substitutability is on the same intellectual level as young-earth creationism and belief in Santa Claus.”
That is name-calling and straw man argumentation. First of all, the doctrine of infinite substitutability (as you mean it) does not exist. Not even Julian Simon claims that. The doctrine was invented out of whole cloth by the energy decline doomsday group. The doctrine then went viral as a rumor.
The term “infinite substitutability” was coined by HE Goeller in a paper, back in 1976. He placed the word “infinite” within quotation marks to indicate that substitution was not _literally_ infinite. He explicitly mentioned that there is no substitute for phosphorous. His idea (which he called “infinite” substitutability, with quotation marks) had _nothing_ to do with what people in the energy decline mean when they say “infinite substitutability”.
Proposal: while it would certainly be much easier to have sustainable clean energy with 1 billion, running on hydro and geo and solar/wind power, this is politically irrelevant. Almost totally so, because if you had a population that was willing to dramatically curtail its reproduction for the global good, you would previously had a population that was willing to curb energy use and raises taxes so as to create a cleaner society with the existing population. “Let’s use renewable and/or nuclear energy and more public transit” is much easier than “let’s have radically fewer kids than we want”.
Not to rain on any individual decision to not have kids, but between “follow existing demographic trends, with public investment in sustainability” and “cut births enough to get to 1 billion people by 2100” I think the former is vastly more likely and politically plausible than the latter, and again if you had people willing to do the latter they’d have earlier been willing to do the former.
Of course it may be that neither is likely, but that’s a different matter.
Those are key words right there for they illustrate the difference in thinking.
If anything is irrelevant, it is what is politically acceptable to humans. Nature does not care one iota about that, it’s up to us to change our behavior accordingly because the laws of nature surely won’t.
What is also worrisome is the timing of the «no limits to population» essay by Erle C. Ellis. The IPCC report is going to be issued shortly, and in official rather than burgled form. The forces of denial are out poisoning wells. The NYT is facilitating this, but only in the name of openness. Indeed, as pointed out, Mr Revkin’s «Dot-Earth» blog has given even more space to this particular stream of denyist drivel, albeit (for journalistic «integrity») with the caveat that there is need for all views, etc.
Wow, that article is something else. How can the author call himself a biologist? He provides no numbers whatsoever to support his assertions, and no specifics describing the underlying processes this magical technology supposedly uses to support so many people.
I find it ironic how he makes the absurd statement that, “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been.” (what exactly does “natural” mean? Not a very scientific term!), and then goes on for the rest of the article to explain how humanity has been able to achieve the growth it has by using technology to extract more and more of the natural world.
It’s sometimes tempting to just dismiss the eternally blind cornucopian optimists as non-scientific types that simply don’t understand the underlying processes they’re formulating their “theories” around, economists being the prime example. But I see a lot of people in the fields of biology and engineering who exhibit this detachment from reality, and these are people who should know better given their training. It provides interesting insight into the functioning of the human mind, how we are able to convince ourselves of certain “truths” as a coping mechanism to avoid experiencing cognitive dissonance (very similar to my observation that when I explain to people that we are facing imminent complete financial disaster and they’re going to lose their life savings if they don’t get them out of the system ASAP, almost all people aren’t even willing to listen and learn, let alone act – “Mark’s just a loonie”).
How can engineers and biologists say these things that are in such contradiction with the basic numbers available? I think it has to do with a lack of scope, to understand how their own particular discipline fits into the big picture. Engineers aren’t educated about where all the fossil fuels come from that provide the energy to drive all the processes they design. And biologists have no basis for understanding how all the technology that engineers design works, and that it basically all comes from burning plant material. Easier to not think and be brainwashed by the media. I could blame the educational system to some extent. I think a course on ecology, particularly focusing on energy and nutrient flows, should be critical as part of the engineering curriculum.
I am thankful (or does it have more to do with my own career choices?) that I have a breadth of experience in the fields of biology, ecology, and engineering, and can formulate this “big picture”. But if one isn’t familiar with how all of these different systems work, then why (how) would one go out and investigate the numbers?
“It provides interesting insight into the functioning of the human mind, how we are able to convince ourselves of certain “truths” as a coping mechanism to avoid experiencing cognitive dissonance”
I am always astonished at how much the collapsitarian point of view consists of psychoanalyzing people who don’t believe in it. A very large fraction of the literature in that movement consists of such psychoanalysis. It always struck me as very odd.
I don’t want to engage in the kind of rampant ad hominem argumentation which is so common within energy decline circles. I must tread carefully here, because I don’t want to give any kind of validation to that sort of thinking. However, I do feel it’s worth pointing out, that the term “cognitive dissonance” was invented to explain why members of doomsday sects continued to believe in them after many prior doomsday predictions had failed.
It always struck me as interesting, that adherents of doomsday groups have _turned around_ the term “cognitive dissonance”, and are using it to refer to people who _do not_ believe in the coming doomsday. It’s an ironic reversal.
“(very similar to my observation that when I explain to people that we are facing imminent complete financial disaster and they’re going to lose their life savings if they don’t get them out of the system ASAP, almost all people aren’t even willing to listen and learn, let alone act – “Mark’s just a loonie”).”
Are you sure it’s cognitive dissonance which explains their disbelief? It seems there are other possibilities. Maybe they have other reasons for not believing you.
I appreciate your efforts to not engage in ad hominem argumentation, however, it seems like you haven’t succeeded completely as there are a few red herrings here.
You seem to have managed to characterize “the collapsitarian point of view” as some type of “doomsday sect” without substantiating that connection.
You have also claimed that “I am always astonished at how much the collapsitarian point of view consists of psychoanalyzing people who don’t believe in it.” which is also unsubstantiated and is probably a mischaracterization of what the “collapsitarian point of view” actually strives towards.
With respect to your commentary about the use of the term “cognitive dissonance” – its use is fair ball if it is used to describe a circumstance where an individual feels discomforted by a conflict between what they believe and empirical reality.
If, for example (hypothetically), it could be empirically shown that a “doomsday event” were actually about to occur, then denial of such empirical evidence could be called a result of cognitive dissonance regardless of the irony.
I may be mistaken but it seems like you assume that arguing from a status quo or “business as usual” point of view provides a “high ground” which may sometimes confuse where the burden of proof lies.
There’s a lot of denial of problems, yes. There are also people who seem to relish the prospect of doom, either from the feeling of being enlightened and having occult knowledge vs. other people, or the feeling that a sinful and profligate society will get what’s coming to it. I can feel the latter in myself: if electric cars suddenly became competitive with gasoline, e.g. $20,000 for a 400 mile range without compromising other modern features, I’d be annoyed as a pro-urban and mass transit and anti-free parking type. Still, I’d recognize the invention as a huge boon for the environment. Others seem like they’d be horrified if we could in fact have the world live like Americans, forever.
And not everyone who sees a troubled future is being rational about it or doing the math. Irrational doomsday thinking exists about lots of things (look at Mark’s “collapse of the financial system”, never mind religious nuts), why should environmentalism be exempt? Not everyone on your side is a rational ally, for any side.
Mutual psychoanalysis aside, the math says to me that business as usual is doomed, but that business not-as-usual can support a First World (Hong Kong/Japan/Europe style, maybe with less meat and air travel) lifestyle for all, or perhaps even much larger populations. Getting from here to there is murkier, and almost certainly won’t be uniform even at best; one can at least try to choose a life that’s buffered from likely changes.
Counterarguments haven’t involved a lot of math yet.
“Irrational doomsday thinking exists about lots of things (look at Mark’s “collapse of the financial system””
While many would think that finance isn’t related to this discussion about overpopulation and resource limits, in reality, the two are intimately intertwined.
The sense of normalcy we have experienced over the last 40 years, which encourages people to have faith in the future and to discount disaster scenarios, has actually been a result of 40 years of US dollar hegemony, and the resulting gross distortion of market forces. What’s happened is that we have had a 30 year bull market in bonds (debt) whereby interest rates have been dropped from 17% 30 years ago to 1.5% last year, in order to hide the inability of the economy to legitimately grow. This bull market has been effected by the Federal Reserve strategically injecting markets to keep the bond vigilantes at bay to prevent interest rates from rising. Essentially, the greatest ponzi scheme in the history of the world has been inflating for the last 40 years. The asset that’s being overvalued is the purchasing power of dollars, which now have zero fundamental relevance to the real underlying economy of goods and services. The only thing keeping ponzi schemes afloat is CONfidence, and when it goes, it goes big time.
I would like to make a historical graph, but I don’t have time right now, of the proportion of US Government debt issuance purchased by real entities like countries, versus that which is purchased by the Federal Reserve printing up dollars. I would guess that you’d see something like single digit or zero figures for Federal Reserve purchases over most of the last 50 years, with the remainder coming from places like Japan and China buying Treasuries using dollars from their trade surpluses. Then what you would see over the last 5 years as the Fed has engaged in greater and greater “stimulus” QE activities (aka, “money printing”), is that graph suddenly going almost vertical up until today, where virtually 100% of new Treasury issuance is funded by the Fed printing up imaginary dollars. This is outright debt monetization. No one will buy America’s debt any more.
If that graph doesn’t grab one’s attention, I don’t know what will. Throughout history there have been about 600 debt backed fiat currencies put into circulation. They have all crashed and burned through hyperinflation, all of them. Not one has lasted longer than 40 years. The current global debt-based fiat currency, the US dollar, has lasted 42 years. It too will soon die, and pretty soon if the amount of debt monetization going on is any indication.
The only reason interest rates aren’t rising too high is because half of the world’s $1 quadrillion of derivatives (levered speculation bets) are suppressing them. Amazingly, despite $45 billion a month being printed up by the Fed to buy Treasuries, interest rates have doubled over the last few months from 1.5% to 3%, despite Bernanke’s pledge to keep them at rock bottom until 2016. This has caused massive losses and it is highly likely that the derivatives bomb has now detonated, but is being contained for a while through covert Fed monetization. Once the dollar is abandoned as the currency used to trade and price oil, the game will be over. Russia and China have recently entered into oil trade agreements using Yuan, not dollars. As of the last month or two, almost every other country is selling their Treasury holdings.
This is guaranteed to blow up soon. I think there will be a lot of forced cognitve dissonance going on after that, and people may be more willing to take seriously the doomsday prophecies.
I don’t think Tom wants a long thread on how wrong that all is, Mark. But highlights:
* 1983 interest rates weren’t normalcy, they were part of the stagflation out of the 1970s, in fact raised high by the Fed to curb inflation. 1.5% now isn’t “hiding” the inability to grow, it’s a response to it. And ignoring the idea of the Keynesian liquidity trap is like ignoring thermodynamics.
* Canada’s currency has floated since 1950, except for 1962-1970. It’s been fiat for the past 43 years straight, and for 55 of the past 63 years. So much for “Not one has lasted longer than 40 years.”
* Yeah, some countries are selling debt now. I also see alarmist articles about Russia selling 30% of its holdings,,, back in 2011. Sky didn’t fall.
* Rising interest and inflation rates are not signs of disaster by themselves. Normal conditions are something like 3% inflation and 5-6% safe Treasury rates; rising back to such levels is the *goal* and a sign of return to normalcy. As for the likelihood of hyperinflation, the Fed can ‘destroy’ money as easily as it can ‘create’ it.
The real economic failure isn’t BS about interest rates, it’s the persisting lack of jobs due to the liquidity trap and lack of a fiscal stimulus to fix it, in fact we’ve had net austerity policies instead.
I think it is fair to say that a completely “rational perspective” can be a difficult thing to find on any side of any issue (humans aren’t really that consistently rational – otherwise we’d be Vulcans).
“Counterarguments haven’t involved a lot of math yet.”
This isn’t entirely true…
There is of course the original “Limits to Growth” study that was done in the 70s which was subsequently much vilified by certain segments of society presumably for political reasons.
Ugo Bardi has spent some time revisiting the original LTG model and has demonstrated the soundness of the approach used by the original LTG team:
He also has some useful analysis at his blog:
Also, another good source of “rational analysis” is provided by Gail “The Actuary” Tverberg at her blog:
Of course this is just more analysis from a couple of my own favorite sources and isn’t meant to prove anything in particular (accept that people are supporting arguments in favour of the “collapsitarian point of view” using math)…
“You … have … characterized “the collapsitarian point of view” as some type of “doomsday sect” without substantiating that connection.”
The collapsitarian point of view in energy decline circles has always claimed that world civilization would soon end, and everyone would die except a small group of enlightened people who had prepared beforehand. That is a doomsday group by definition.
“You have also claimed that “I am always astonished at how much the collapsitarian point of view consists of psychoanalyzing people who don’t believe in it.” which is also unsubstantiated and is probably a mischaracterization”
It certainly is substantiated. The parent poster repeatedly did that, as do many of the other posters here. How is it a mischaracterization?
“The sense of normalcy we have experienced over the last 40 years … has actually been a result of 40 years of US dollar hegemony, and the resulting gross distortion of market forces.”
Then why has there been normalcy in countries like France which don’t use the US Dollar as currency?
“What’s happened is that we have had a 30 year bull market in bonds (debt) whereby interest rates have been dropped from 17% 30 years ago to 1.5% last year, in order to hide the inability of the economy to legitimately grow.”
How would dropping interest rates hide the inability of the economy to “legitimately” grow? How has the world economy, in fact, grown by tremendous amounts over the last 30 years? Was it “illegitimate” growth?
If the economy could not have grown, then it would not have grown. Printing money couldn’t “hide” that.
“purchasing power of dollars, which now have zero fundamental relevance to the real underlying economy of goods and services.”
Why can I still buy goods and services with dollars?
“Throughout history there have been about 600 debt backed fiat currencies put into circulation. They have all crashed and burned through hyperinflation, all of them.”
Where are you getting this information? Before the 20th century, there had been only three or four fiat currencies ever. Since then, there have been hundreds of fiat currencies introduced but very few of them have crashed and burned because of hyperinflation. The claim that they have “all crashed and burned, all of them” is clearly and drastically wrong.
“Once the dollar is abandoned as the currency used to trade and price oil, the game will be over.”
Why would the game be over? Some industrialized countries (like France) have never had their currency used to trade and price oil on the world market. Has the game been “over” for them all along?
“The collapsitarian point of view in energy decline circles has always claimed that world civilization would soon end, and everyone would die except a small group of enlightened people who had prepared beforehand. That is a doomsday group by definition.”
I’m sorry, but this is pretty weak.
You’re oversimplifying and painting too many people with the same brush.
What you are saying here is a little like saying “all republicans think X” or “all democrats think Y”.
Prove it – otherwise it’s just a silly thing to say.
“It certainly is substantiated. The parent poster repeatedly did that, as do many of the other posters here. How is it a mischaracterization?”
Well, if you can prove that a small group of commenters at one blog who have “psychoanalysed” you is representive of a wider phenomenon of “collapsitarians” that psychoanalyse a significant proportion of those that disagree with them, then fair enough.
But you’d need to prove that to call it substantiated and until you can show everyone the numbers, I’ll say again that this is probably a mischaracterisation.
Again, just because you may feel that you are arguing from a perspective that is held by the majority, does not mean you are exempted from burden of proof – I’m just being a diligent skeptic.
“I’m sorry, but this is pretty weak… You’re oversimplifying and painting too many people with the same brush… Well, if you can prove that a small group of commenters at one blog who have ‘psychoanalysed’ you is representive of a wider phenomenon of ‘collapsitarians’ … I’ll say again that this is probably a mischaracterisation.”
James Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, and Dmitri Orlov are the three leading authors of the peak oil/collapse movement and all use this tactic extensively. One of them (Orlov) wrote an article entitled “Peak Oil Oppositional Disorder: Neurosis or Psychosis”, in which he said: “Take your typical neurotic (refuses to face Peak Oil, spouts gibberish about it when pressed), put that neurotic through a terrible, ego-destroying crisis, and that individual may regress and lapse into psychosis”. In your comment to that article, you said: “I’ve read very few adaptive or ‘transition’ strategies that factor in the effects of a weeping, cutting, feces smearing populace that will be an almost certain by-product of the stresses imposed by various converging crises… Maybe this is just an extension of mainstream economic thinking – ie: that humans are ‘rational'”.
However, you are now claiming that peak oil collapse is not a doomsday movement, and that I’m mischaracterizing it by saying that it engages in psychoanalysis.
“If, for example (hypothetically), it could be empirically shown that a ‘doomsday event’ were actually about to occur, then denial of such empirical evidence could be called a result of cognitive dissonance”
You’re not responding to the point I made. I wasn’t claiming that cognitive dissonance about an actual collapse of civilization would be _impossible_ even in theory. Clearly, if civilization had really collapsed circa 2006 then it would be possible for those who had denied it (and were still alive for some reason) to undergo cognitive dissonance; for example, to claim that civilization had not really collapsed, or that they had always believed it would collapse, etc. They might pretend the trains were still arriving, etc.
However, the collapse has not actually occurred, in fact. My point is that civilization did not, _in fact_, collapse when the energy decline movement or peak oilers said it would. Therefore, the people who denied it are not, _in fact_, in a state of cognitive dissonance, because they have no need for it. Hypothetically, they may have employed cognitive dissonance if doomsday had actually occurred. I’m not denying that. I’m saying that the doomsday _did not actually occur_ and therefore the deniers of it are not the ones in need of cognitive dissonance.
Furthermore, there is no serious reason to believe that it will occur. The arguments in favor of it are simply repetitions of the arguments which have already failed repeatedly and therefore are refuted. I do not believe there has been any significant change to energy decline theory now that their predictions have repeatedly failed. It is not necessary to invoke cognitive dissonance to explain why people disbelieve the doomsday theories. There are obvious, logical reasons to disbelieve the doomsday theories.
In this case, the term “cognitive dissonance” would apply to people who had prepared for doomsday (and preached doomsday), and then it didn’t actually come. That would mean that the doomsday adherents had wasted some fraction of their lives preparing for a disaster which never occurred; that they gave up their careers for nothing; that they did not actually have special insight into the workings of the world, as they thought they did, but had _worse_ judgment than the average stupid person for whom they always had contempt; that they were _uniquely_ duped despite prior assumptions of superiority; and so on.
This is not a hypothetical example. This is what has actually occurred now. This is a CLASSIC case of cognitive dissonance and is precisely the circumstance, down to the last detail, which that term was invented to explain. That is why I find it ironic that many energy decline doomsday adherents are talking about “cognitive dissonance” and they are not referring to themselves. The term would apply to them VASTLY more than it would to anyone else in the world.
I understand what your saying.
There is nothing wrong with my earlier reply re: use of the term “cognitive dissonance”.
I suppose that if your point is only that it is ironic that some people who may suffer from the effects of cognitive dissonance themselves are guilty of accusing others of the same thing, well, so what?
What about all the real damage that’s been done to society by people with institutional rank making “politically correct” predictions about the future (which after the fact were proven to be way out of touch with reality)?
If these people subsequently return to making the same types of “politically correct” predictions after having witnessed how they were wrong the first time, is your point about irony applicable to them too?
Let’s not forget about recurring themes like “irrational exuberance” which may fit inside the “Overton window” but which are not necessarily in touch with reality.
“It always struck me as interesting, that adherents of doomsday groups have _turned around_ the term “cognitive dissonance”, and are using it to refer to people who _do not_ believe in the coming doomsday.”
The numbers clearly show that we are at extremely high risk of collapse, and it will happen unless some miraculous transformation in human behaviour and energy takes place.
I’ve perused your site and what I notice is that you provide no supporting numerical analysis. I therefore can’t accept your optimism. My best Tom Cruise impression: “Show me the math!”
These are the more-or-less irrefutable numbers:
• By far the vast majority of the energy and stuff we use to support humanity comes from burning plant material (biofuels, fossil fuels, food) – in the order of 95-97%, depending on how you’d like to define things. The proportions are very roughly 1/3 biofuels, 1/3 food, 1/3 fossil fuels.
• Fossil fuels, because they have the advantage of already having lost their oxygen atoms through geological processes, are already hydrocarbons and therefore much more useful and energy dense. It requires lots of energy to turn biofuels into hydrocarbons.
• All plants grow outside somewhere in the sunshine, using water and nutrients.
• The total amount of plant material that the planet produces has gone down by 10% over the rise of humanity, despite advancements made in the Green Revolution.
• The artificial stimulus provided by the Green Revolution to maintain even this 90% of historical global plant production basically comes from applying super-concentrated plant material (fossil fuels) obtained from somewhere else.
• Humanity currently consumes about 12% of the planet’s total plant production, and appropriates roughly double that for all purposes.
• There is no significant current trend towards weaning us away from burning plant material as our main source of energy.
• Efficiencies of burning this plant material to do useful stuff are nearing thermodynamic limits and cannot expect to improve much going forward.
Based on this, it seems highly unlikely that growth will be able to continue. And as fossil fuels run out, by virtue of their inherently more useful chemical composition, it will not be possible to replace that energy using biofuels.
Will nuclear or solar energy rise up to save us? Show me the numbers! The trends! I don’t see them being encouraging. Sure, let’s do everything we can to increase solar energy capture, but the default scenario here is collapse, not a continuation of the previous trends, because that’s what the numbers say and what the current and historical trends are suggesting. Therefore, a rational person prepares for and warns of collapse.
At a basic level the trends are of growing solar and wind power, and renewed interest in nuclear power outside of Germany which is backsliding (but also a leader in renewables.) Installed solar base is growing exponentially and prices have been plummeting. Young adults in multiple rich countries are driving less and young Americans are choosing more urban lifestyles with more multimodal transport.
And between fracking and coal, it seems likely we’ll run out of climate before we run out of fossil energy. Not that that’s that reassuring. Climate aside, the question would be whether we run out of fossil fuels faster than rising prices induce us to replace them with other power sources and downshift our energy use.
I’ll just point out the irony that the title of the original post was about the fallacy of predicting the future (and the dangers of extrapolation or failure to consider game changers). And yet we witness here a raging debate about the nature of the future. Most of the discussion centers on the past or past performance of predictions.
Using the past as a template is usually a very good idea—until it isn’t. We all need to exercise caution and every one of us reign in the certainty. It kills me. Certainty is almost certainly wrong. We need to acknowledge that the future will most likely hold surprises, and humble us all in our inability to anticipate it. There are warning signs, to be sure, so we need to protect ourselves against glib dismissals. But the more drastic collapse scenarios are likely about as wrong as the “no problem here” projections.
I recommend putting this tennis match to rest (and perhaps should return to an earlier mode of more aggressively moderating once the impasse is obvious).
Thank you for your comments – and I would like to go on record that I agree with them.
If you’ll permit me to add to them, I’d just like to say that there should always be room for debate on any issue – it shouldn’t surprising that there are probably as many different belief structures as there are people on this planet.
In any particular debate, more important than who is “right” and who is “wrong” is the quality of the arguments and willingness to be open-mindedness in the face of evidence.
Sweeping generalizations made by any side of any debate should rightfully require proof before such claims are taken as fact.
“I’ll just point out the irony that the title of the original post was about the *fallacy of predicting the future* …
But the more drastic collapse scenarios are *likely about as wrong* as the “no problem here” projections.”
“We need to acknowledge that the future will most likely hold surprises, and humble us all in our inability to anticipate it.”
Of course the future will hold surprises. That’s why I don’t claim to be able to predict the future. For all I know, a new emergent disease will crop up and kill most of us. Or there could be a nuclear war. Or the flu will mutate and turn fatal. I have no way of predicting when or if those things will occur. And there are a million other events which are essentially unpredictable.
That said, some things can be ruled out. If I told you that Jupiter was going to collide with Earth tomorrow, for absurd reasons, then presumably you would disagree with me and would be justifiably certain in your disagreement.
Similarly, the energy decline doomsday/collapse theory as put forth in the “Olduvai Gorge” papers and many other places, consists of severe errors and little else. Those errors are severe enough that any one of them would invalidate its conclusions. Furthermore, the energy collapse movement has issued many predictions, each of which invariably fails, year after year. The theory is pseudoscientific, invalid, and refuted. It’s not a guide to the future. Furthermore, there is no reason to expect that it would suddenly turn accurate.
I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I know that won’t happen.
I personally think your faith that you know we don’t face serious energy limitations in the future is dangerously unsubstantiated. The human endeavor is not nearly so deterministic as planetary orbits, so I think your example misses the mark by a wide margin. We would be foolish to ignore the fact that grand civilizations are known to decline to obscurity, and to claim that we can somehow inoculate ourselves against this. One constant in the equation: human beings are the same now as they were then. We have layered knowledge and technology, but there is no actual evidence that these are enough to prevent full-scale decline. You may have faith in technological solutions, but these may have unappreciated practical limitations, barriers to implementation, or simply fall short of the virtues of the marvelous fossil fuels. You tread dangerous ground if you claim to know that any imagined path will certainly work in our actual world.
On its face, we know we have never seen anything like the fossil/population boom on this planet. We are in uncharted territory, so certainty about our future energy path is misplaced, in my opinion. Moreover, if it turns out to be a realm that deserves our utmost attention, labeling it as a colossal waste of time could be a dangerous recommendation. I see energy as a central ingredient in how we got where we are. Knowing the primary source is finite and will become scarce makes me sit up. We run a risk of going backwards if we do not take this seriously. I think humans have to understand what’s at stake before taking corrective action. I personally do not trust markets to have a long enough view to act decades before a crisis to avoid a backslide. It’s a set of blinders. You essentially say: leave the blinders on: we’ll work our way through this by the grace of markets. I say let’s do our best to peer forward and comprehend risks that otherwise may catch us by surprise.
I agree that the future is difficult to predict and that it will likely hold many surprises. However, energy on the scale of our economies and planet is completely deterministic, and based on the previous trends and analysis of where our energy all comes from today and historically, and based on an energy analysis explaining how it is that we have actually managed to reach such heights despite Malthus’ warnings, we can make very accurate forecasts about what we are going to see unfolding in the future unless drastic changes to social and economic systems are undertaken, of which I see no evidence.
I suspect that you don’t want this comments forum to turn into a debate about economics, but you say that “I personally do not trust markets”. I echo that sentiment, and would add that there is a saying in the contrarian economics blogosphere that “there are no more markets; only interventions”. I can’t recall who said it. For this reason, I have even less faith in markets than you do.
Some here claim that the doomsday predictors have been consistently wrong over the decades. That is not correct, since many predictions have come true. Complete collapse hasn’t happened, of course, and I argue that this is because of those “interventions” which have inflated the US dollar ponzi scheme to incredible heights. The economic numbers we see just don’t jive with the energy and resource numbers underlying it all. There will be some event happening in the near future when the two worlds, of real world resources, and the financial instruments supposedly representing it, come together. Some can deny it; others will prepare and warn of it. In the end, it will happen. Will it be a complete collapse of civilization as we know it? No, but it will be a complete financial collapse, which may possibly trigger a new downward spiral in humanity. On the other hand we may react differently and use it as motivation to choose a new course of action. How we will respond, I don’t know. But the collapse will be here shortly; I estimate within a year.
Hi Tom. Let me just say that I appreciate the debate, and I appreciate that you’ve allowed me to air my views here.
With that said, it seems you’re not responding to what I wrote. It’s possible you’re engaging in straw man argumentation, or it’s possible that I was unclear, and was thereby misinterpreted. Whatever the reason, I think I should be absolutely clear about what I mean here.
“I personally think your faith that you know we don’t face serious energy limitations in the future is dangerously unsubstantiated.”
That’s not what I said. What I said is that the collapsitarian theories put forth by Duncan, Savinar, Kunstler, Heinberg, McPherson, and many, many other people at The Oil Drum and other places, are entirely mistaken. Those theories are mistaken because of logical or arithmetic errors which invalidate their conclusions. We can know they are mistaken with greater certainty than planetary orbits, because their errors are usually logical or arithmetic. Logic and arithmetic are even more certain than planetary orbits.
Let me give an example. One of the core doctrines of the collapsitarian movement is that the economy is structured in such a way that it must grow continuously, or it will collapse immediately. This is supposedly because of fiat money, and because of the widespread debt in our economy. Their theory is that debt in the economy imposes a requirement for growth, because debt imposes interest, so more money must be paid back in the future (debt+interest), and we won’t have more money unless there is growth. We could express their theory in terms of a very simple inequality, as follows:
growth > rate of interest
..otherwise debts cannot be paid back, and the economy must collapse.
This simple inequality which they’ve produced, is wrong. It has the wrong term on the left-hand side. Debts are paid with INCOME, not GROWTH. It is wrong, because an algebraic inequality does not work if you put the wrong terms in various places, or if you fill in variables with incorrect values or carry out arithmetic incorrectly. These things are _more certain_ than planetary orbits. Also, the theory is wrong for other reasons. For example, it SWITCHES TERMS in the middle of the argument (“bankruptcy” and “collapse of civilization” are used interchangeably), and an argument is incorrect if you do that.
ALL of the other collapsitarian theories from those authors have similar mathematical, logical, or arithmetic errors which totally invalidate their conclusions. Usually, they have MORE THAN ONE such error. As a result, those theories are WRONG. Incidentally, that is why their predictions fail so consistently.
There is also another important issue: these theories are never changed or updated in any significant way when the predictions constantly fail. Bear in mind that a SINGLE failed prediction is enough to know that a theory is wrong, when that theory is claimed to be an inevitable consequence of thermodynamics with no exceptions. Nevertheless, these theories are put forth as valid even when they are claimed to be the inevitable result of thermodynamics and when they have already failed.
“We would be foolish to ignore the fact that grand civilizations are known to decline to obscurity, and to claim that we can somehow inoculate ourselves against this.”
In my post above, I explicitly point out that it’s possible for civilization to collapse, for other reasons. I gave several examples. I was not claiming that we necessarily can “inoculate” ourselves against decline.
“You may have faith in technological solutions, but these may have unappreciated practical limitations, barriers to implementation, or simply fall short of the virtues of the marvelous fossil fuels”
That is changing the topic. We were talking about collapsitarian theories. Now you are saying that renewables may “fall short of the virtues” of fossil fuels. Of course, they very may well fall short of those virtues, as I’ve pointed out many times here. But that has _nothing to do_ with the correctness of collapsitarian theories. Those theories are not just positing that (say) battery-powered cars are worse in some manner than gasolline-poweres ones, as they certainly are.
“You essentially say: leave the blinders on”
No, that is absolutely not what I’m saying. I am saying: take the blinders off. I am saying that the energy collapse adherents have blinders on RIGHT NOW, and it has been many years now since collapse was supposed to have happened, and it’s time for them to take those blinders off. Energy decline adherents should have had SERIOUS DOUBTS about their theories about 5 years ago when the predictions started failing. Yet those theories are repeated now as if they were correct!
“I say let’s do our best to peer forward and comprehend risks that otherwise may catch us by surprise.”
I don’t believe that logical or arithmetic errors are the best way of peering forward. Nor do I think that theories which have a 100% failure rate of prediction over years or decades are the best way of peering forward.
Before I conclude, I wish to be clear about what I’m claiming here. I’m not saying that there are no possible problems with energy in the future. It’s entirely possible that you will devise some new theory which points out problems wrt energy that I had not considered. It’s also possible (but unlikely) that the energy collapse adherents will put forth some new theory, instead of just repeating the same 10 failed theories, decade after decade. If a new theory arises, then it should be considered separately.
What I am saying is that the energy collapse theories put forth already by that movement are pseudoscientific, discredited, and most importantly, WRONG. Therefore, those theories are not a good guide to the future, and should be abandoned now.
It’s sometimes tempting to just dismiss the eternally blind cornucopian optimists as non-scientific types that simply don’t understand the underlying processes they’re formulating their “theories” around, economists being the prime example. But I see a lot of people in the fields of biology and engineering who exhibit this detachment from reality, and these are people who should know better given their training. – See more at: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2013/09/the-already-written-future/#comment-10136
That’s a very good point. However, I am afraid you are making the assumption that the kind of training that results in someone obtaining a degree and developing a set of skills dedicated to solving a narrow set of skills is the same as proper scientific training (let’s recall what PhD stands for). But it is not necessarily so. A disturbingly large portion of people working in science are precisely that – people working in science, but not actual scientists who can and do examine critically things outside of their immediate topic of research. It is a very sad state of affairs but we should not close our eyes to the reality of it
I’ll interject that people get PhDs for all sorts of personal and cultural reasons. Familial identity or tradition is a very strong influence, in fact. Sometimes innately curious individuals find their way to a degree. But just as often, these “true scientists” are auto mechanics, farmers, etc. by profession. In other words, I agree with GM’s statement that a PhD in science does not in itself a scientist make.
While I would firmly describe myself as a scientist, I can’t pretend that I’ve ever been published in a scientific journal, even though all my life I dreamed of being an official scientist doing that. Because of some personal (and family) issues, and just life’s different directions I guess, I didn’t end up going down that route, instead focussing on the more practical aspects of applying scientific knowledge. It’s something I do regret somewhat. I always had, and still do have, an immense fascination with the biological riches of the tropics, especially Amazonia, and the plants that native cultures use. Alas, you can’t do everything…
But I think being a scientist has more to do with the way one looks at the world — does one’s outlook coincide with the scientific method of hypothesis formulation and scepticism, with reversion to the null hypothesis as the default. In other words, do you have “The Great Doubt” as a world view? It is the Great Doubt that stimulates curiosity and leads one to learn more about the world and ask the scientific questions to discover its mysteries, which inevitably leads to even more questions about deeper mysteries. If one is certain about how the world works, via dogmatic religious or ideological beliefs, then why would one even bother to wonder what’s going on out there and put in the effort to learn about it?
“does one’s outlook coincide with the scientific method of hypothesis formulation and scepticism”
Has there ever been a specific, non-obvious, falsifiable prediction put forth by the energy decline movement which was confirmed by subsequent evidence? I think that’s a fair question.
“In other words, do you have ‘The Great Doubt’ as a world view?”
I have been following the energy decline and peak oil movements for about 6 years now. They have issued a long string predictions, all drastically failed. For example, there was not a natural gas cliff. The electricity grid has not failed everywhere. International trade has not ended and there has not been a relocalization of agriculture. World oil production has not followed a Hubbert curve. And on, and on, year after year.
Yet these ideas are never called into question within the energy decline movement. There has never been any discussion about why the predictions have failed. This issue is never even raised, not even once, by anyone within the movement.
Whatever happened to “The Great Doubt”?
Actually, I should amend my remark.
“There has never been any discussion about why the predictions have failed. This issue is never even raised, not even once, by anyone within the movement.”
Euan Mearns did publish an article on The Oil Drum entitled “Three nails in the coffin of peak oil” or something similar. However, the other peak oil/energy decline adherents just brushed it off with remarks like “the predictions didn’t fail, they were just too early” or “the titanic is sinking a little more slowly” etc. One long-time peak oiler said the Mearns was a “sort of twisted psychotic sadist-pervert”, which I must admit got a big chuckle out of me.
Also, there have always been people who suddenly realized that it was all wrong and left the movement. They are not mentioned again. I think the movement has declined from 10,000+ people in the late 2000’s, to about 300 people today.
“Has there ever been a specific, non-obvious, falsifiable prediction put forth by the energy decline movement which was confirmed by subsequent evidence?”
Ummm, the US hit Peak Oil in 1971?
Hubbert predicted Peak Oil globally would hit around 2005 (or so) I believe. We hit Peak in 2005 and it has been on a plateau ever since. Global oil production rates have not increased in 8 years, despite oil prices having tripled over that period. That’s pretty darn close in my books.
The only reason the plateau didn’t enter decline was because of a marked increase in US tight oil production over that period. But I’d argue that this oil would not be profitable to produce at today’s low oil prices (yes, LOW oil prices!) without the abnormally low interest rate environment and Wall Street ponzi schemes funding it all (see my earlier comment for a discussion of interest rates). In effect, the US dollar ponzi sheme has pulled future oil production back in time to maintain a plateau over what should have been a decline.
I’m a little taken aback by the denial exhibited here. The facts are:
– we are fully dependent on burning complex carbon molecules for our economic and social survival; this mostly comes from fossil fuels.
– there is only so much carbon molecules in the ground on a finite planet.
– the EROEI of extracting the remaining oil has declined to below 10:1 for most remaining reserves, taking us dangerously close to the commonly accepted cutoff of 5:1.
– new oil discovery rates are well below consumption rates.
– when will we hit Peak Gas and Peak Coal, who knows. I’d give them a few more decades yet. I never said we were at peak for coal and NG.
– we are making virtually no progress in weaning our economies off fossil fuels (any gains in alternative energy are overshadowed by growing coal and NG consumption.)
– you want to quibble about exact dates? Be my guest, I won’t argue with you. The fundamentals are pretty clear, and as someone who focusses on understanding underlying processes rather than getting distracted by statistical noise, I see no reason to turn a blind eye to fundamentals; we will be accepted to have been correct in the end.
“Hubbert predicted Peak Oil globally would hit around 2005 (or so) I believe. We hit Peak in 2005 and it has been on a plateau ever since.”
No he didn’t. He predicted global oil production would peak in the late 1990s, and would decline immediately thereafter, at a few percent per year, according to a bell-shaped curve. It was just all wrong, as were the other predictions using Hubbert Linearization or similar methods.
“I’m a little taken aback by the denial exhibited here.”
Mark, once again you’re responding to criticism by attempting an amateur psychoanalysis of the critic. That is a _standard technique_ in energy decline doomsday circles. It’s a basic, fundamental logical error, and it just avoids the actual issue.
It’s not “denial” to ask why there has been a 100% failure rate of prediction over many years. It’s an OBVIOUS question, although it would never be asked by anyone within the energy decline movement.
“In effect, the US dollar ponzi sheme has pulled future oil production back in time to maintain a plateau over what should have been a decline.”
The US dollar is not a ponzi scheme. Furthermore, the US dollar cannot pull future oil production backwards in time.
Everyone in the peak oil and energy decline movements (without a single prominent exception) claimed that oil production must peak and then decline as a matter of basic physics, thermodynamics, and reservoir geology. They all claimed it was PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to increase oil production or prevent imminent declines. If that had been true, and peak oil or energy decline theories had been correct, then printing money would have had absolutely no effect on it.
“taking us dangerously close to the commonly accepted cutoff of 5:1.”
It’s not “commonly accepted”, except within the echo chamber of a small fringe doomsday group. There is no serious scientific body which accepts that conclusion.
“you want to quibble about exact dates?.. The fundamentals are pretty clear, and as someone who focusses on understanding underlying processes rather than getting distracted by statistical noise, I see no reason to turn a blind eye to fundamentals; we will be accepted to have been correct in the end.”
You are doing exactly the same things as all other doomsday groups which have seen their predictions fail. You are engaging in unfalsifiable theorizing, which means you are now completely divorced from reality. You are writing off drastic failures of prediction, over many years, as “statistical noise”. Of course, that means you can also write off future drastic failures of prediction as yet more “statistical noise”. This means that _no possible evidence_ would have any effect on energy decline collapse theory, in which case it fails the most basic criterion of a scientific theory.
You are also inventing reasons in retrospect, to explain why the doomsday predictions were essentially correct even though the predicted doomsday did not occur. That is also a _classic_ technique of failed doomsday groups. For example, one UFO doomsday group claimed that their doomsday prediction had been “essentially correct” but the actions of their tiny group had been so heroic that it convinced the aliens not to destroy planet Earth, thus narrowly averting doomsday. The same technique is now being used extensively in peak oil and energy decline circles. They say their predictions were essentially correct, and civilization would have collapsed as a matter of thermodynamics, but somehow the Fed printing money was able to delay it (?) and postpone the collapse. I have heard that explanation more than ten times now from energy decline adherents.
Of course, what you are saying is the EXACT OPPOSITE of science. Science does not write off, discount, or ignore failed predictions or unexpected results.
The theories put forth on The Oil Drum and other peak oil and collapse websites, are not only incorrect, but are not even scientific theories in any sense of the term.
[shortened by moderator, with an aim to put end to tennis match]
“It’s not “denial” to ask why there has been a 100% failure rate of prediction over many years.”
I’m scratching my head at this one since […] the US peak[ed] in oil production in 1971. [This does not constitute] a 100% failure rate.
Last night I was at an event having to do with housing for the poor, where I came across an acquaintance of long standing, a perky, pretty, charismatic young woman who is dedicated to improving the lot of the poor, including but not limited to housing. She is gradually wiggling her way into environmentalism.
Some time ago I had recommended «do-the-math» to her. Last night she told me the blog is not worth taking seriously: “Everybody there seems to hate religion and people like me.” (She is a devout liberal evangelical Christian.)
I would suggest folks here tamp down the religion-belittling snark. I have learned over the years to ignore it; but for the purposes of blogs such as this, it does no good and tends to be counter-productive. Dan Kahan has spoken and written on this matter. The other day I came across:
He makes the point better than I can.
For a dose of real heavy-duty non-PC snark, one can find nothing stronger than when my brothers and I, beer in hand, swap lies and solve the world’s problems while gathered around a barbecue, particularly at the old family home deep in the sticks and out of earshot. If the «talk» here is too assiduously cleaned up, it has all the sparkle and delight of a half-empty beer left on a windowsill last night. But a tad of care can only bring benefit.
And I love this blog!
If the NYT had an article announcing that the earth was flat (and infinite) would you read it, except for amusement? Sadly, though, in the case of the article referenced (I did not and do not intend to read it) it will be taken as a description of reality by all too many movers and shakers. Moving and shaking the herd in full stampede towards the (Seneca) cliff.
From a different perspective, who would want to live in a world of many more people? Even if the technology and social systems could be developed to support so many people, what would their quality of life be?
Do you really want to visit the beach and be chastised for using more than 1 square meter to lay out your towel? How about being one of a tourist group of one thousand admiring the vast open expanse of the last five square kilometers of the Grand Canyon? Or perhaps we could all live in minipods , (ten to a present day European bedroom), and be plugged into a virtual reality machine, fed on synthesized paste.
Seriously, after working in more than thirty countries I know I don`t want to live in an overcrowded place subsisting on minimal resources.
Any one else thinking along these lines?
Rationed access to national parks is a far cry from minimal resources. My sketch of a trillion-person earth had Manhattan density, 3 kilowatts of energy per person — low compared to the US, but still First World, especially in a nice climate — and lots of water. The Marchetti paper goes into more detail, taking a glance at the abundances of needed construction material. Food is tightly vegetarian and the system is pushing the margins, but reliably adequate food and 3 kW of electricity and the infrastructure of a Manhattan (modern housing, transit, abundant shops, modern medicine) is luxury for much of the human race today, not to mention most of the human race ever.
And if a trillion is possible, a mere 100 billion could be rather luxurious, outside of wilderness access. Under the same assumptions, living and food space would take 6% of the land, while using modern US levels of energy would cover 11% of the land in solar panels. There’d be a lot more wilderness than now, though shared among many more potential visitors.
Great post and I thought perhaps you might similarly enjoy my blog post, also in response to Ellis’ NYT Op-Ed, “If Overpopulation Isn’t the Problem, What’s the Question?” http://ecooptimism.com/?p=1164
The article has a mind boggling survivorship bias. He examined some societies that grew and prospered and he concludes that we can safely grow forever. He ignores the silent majority of civilizations which died in the past 10,000 years. For a discussion of civilizations that failed due to overpopulation, read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”
Nature takes no prisoners. Don’t know who first coined the phrase, but it’s one of my dictums…
Perhaps of interest: The energetic implications of curtailing versus storing solar- and wind-generated electricity
As for our possible future, and that disturbing spike of fossil fuel use and what comes before and after, it’s worth thinking about why a solar ‘after’ might be different from the solar ‘before’. Before, the main use of solar energy was growing plants, typically said to be 1% efficient at converting sunlight to biomass. Food gets turned into work by humans or animals at what, 25% efficiency? So 0.25% sun-to-work conversion. Burning stuff for artificial light is pretty terrible too. Burning for heat is okay, I guess, though stuff like Franklin stoves made even that more efficient. Some cultures also used solar heat effectively for homes and salt production, though not all did. Sunlight is great as light, of course.
And what’s the EROEI of traditional food production? I’ve heard of surpluses like 25% or less, like a farm family could support 1/4 of a person after feeding themselves and putting aside seed for the next harvest. So that’d be 1.25:1? OTOH firewood and grass (for grazing animals) didn’t take much work, and were useful for heat, building material, and work.
Meanwhile even a crappy solar panels can convert 10% of solar energy to electricity while the sun’s up, with sun-to-work of I’d guess 8-9%, vs. the 0.25% of human food, and EROEI of what, 10:1? And some of us are a lot more aware of the heating potential of sunlight, with solar ovens, water heaters, and such, though society as a whole is clueless. Electric lights are far better, like 40x-300x more efficient than an olive oil lamp or wax candle, modulo the storage issue. Reverse osmosis uses like 300x less energy than evaporative distillation. (6 KJ/kg vs. 2 MJ/kg) And the 19th century wasn’t all about steam or even electricity, as people got better at mechanical linkage design (horse-drawn harvesters) and using rotary instead of reciprocating motion and such. There’s probably something to be said about modern vs. traditional windmills, too.
So going from oil-rich to solar may be a big shock, but when we can get 40x as much general work from sunlight, and 300x more light or water or perhaps other specialized applications, there’s reason to think ‘after fossil’ will be a lot richer than ‘before fossil’. Knowledge matters.
 That’s comparing wall power to oil. Going from sunlight, we have 1000 W sunlight = 100 W electricity = 1000-10,000 lumens. Or 1000 W sun = 10 W oil = 3 lumens. Ratio of 300-3000. Not counting the energy cost of making an overnight battery. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminous_efficacy#Examples_2
A worked out comparison of the efficiency of corn-based ethanol versus solar panels:
I think everyone is being a little unfair to Ellis.
He says there is no such thing as “carrying capacity” in the sense that carrying capacity changes, human intellect causes the carrying capacity to change – obviously true, take away science & engineering and the carrying capacity is not 1/100 the present population – not in the absurd sense that “there are no physical limits.”
He made clear in his original article that he was not talking about the patently absurd case of unlimited exponential growth, but rather the context of ” . . . the more than nine billion people expected by 2050 as the population nears its peak . . .”
In that context – that the human population is expected to peak at about 9B – he says that human ingenuity will suffice to allow the planet to carry the load for “as long as necessary,” which he places at about a century. That may be right, it may be wrong, but it is not clearly and unarguably absurd.
I think he made his points very poorly, his writing was loose, sloppy, hyperbolic, and imprecise. But he was not making the absurd arguments everyone is criticizing here. I think everyone is criticizing what Ellis did not say.
I partially agree. A lot of what Ellis writes is, in context, quite uncontroversial. Yes, humans have always changed their environment. And that is true for all organisms, not just us. Ecology has long acknowledged that fact. The issue with Ellis is the framing: starts with a straw-man (who compares humans to bacteria in a petri dish?), claiming to be in possession of special insights that other scientists lack (“Why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”), and framing the environmental debate as between crude Mathusianism and the sophisticated “science of the Anthropocene”. The latter term of course was coined by scientists who realized that humans have, within a few centuries, changed the planet as much as happened in past geological eras of the past spanning millions of years. There’s a huge step from these scientists, who were concerned about this rapid change, to saying, as Ellis does, that the Anthropocene has freed us from “natural environmental limits of our planet”.
“who compares humans to bacteria in a petri dish?”
Many people within energy decline circles actually do that. It is one of the standard theories of the movement.
Actually, energy decline adherents usually compare humanity to YEAST in a petri dish, not bacteria, but the effect is essentially the same.
It’s the basis of the overshoot/collapse theory. In the book “overshoot” from the 1970s, which is a classic of the movement, analogies are drawn to populations of animals that have overshot their carrying capacity and must now “die off”. That is the basis of the frequent references in energy decline circles of the terms “overshoot” and “die-off”, and presumably was the source of the name for “dieoff.org” which was the original peak oil collapse website.
As another example, I think there was a video called “Are humans smarter than yeast” which was popular in energy decline circles a few years ago and was discussed on The Oil Drum.
I’m not trying to tar everyone with the same brush here, and I’m not saying everyone on The Oil Drum was making the comparison between humans and yeast. However, the yeast comparison was seriously made by many. It’s not just a straw man.
It’s a standard feature of the energy decline movement to engage in that weird kind of straw man argumentation. For example, it’s practically routine among energy decline adherents to say that people who disbelieve their theories also think that the world is infinite, or resources are infinite. For example, in the seminal 2003 paper by Campbell et al, we find the statement “occasionally paraded by [economists] in support of their faith in infinite resources.” And this kind of statement is so widespread within the energy decline movement as to be routine by now.
Unfortunately, there was actually one person (Julian Simon) who seriously claimed back in 1980s that resources were practically infinite.
“I think he made his points very poorly, his writing was loose, sloppy, hyperbolic, and imprecise.”
I think we must bear in mind the restrictions of the editorial format. He is required to make his points in 3/4ths of a page or less. I think he did so as well as could be expected.
Tom, I believe your posts are making a fundamental difference as we all attempt to chart our collective path forward, thank you. In many cases I have a gut-feeling about the workability or wisdom of a particular direction, and your site often provides the mathematical confirmation, particularly in the areas of future energy growth and the necessity of a steady-state economy. I don’t quite share your concern with peak oil, but this is a quibble compared to the overall value of your work. I just used your “Nuclear Options” post extensively in a post that I wrote (at http://sustainableus.org/2013/09/23/the-nuke-post/). That post, combined with the comments that followed, greatly aided in my understanding of the issue. Keep up the good work. -tb
Technical note on population growth and GDP/capita: the latter is a very crude measurement. E.g. $10,000/capita could mean a relatively egalitarian country (Poland) where most people get something like that, or a highly inequal country like South Africa or Namibia where the white minority lives like Americans and the blacks live like subsistence farmers.