In 20 years, oil will be obsolete?

Principal author:
John L. Clark


Two of my friends comment on my most recent article about growth.

I don't yet have commenting functionality on this site, so friends and others have been commenting on my writing in other venues. The following conversation took place in response to my article, To our leaders: we desperately need less growth, not more.

Eric (2010-04-13T20:54:00-04:00)

No, we need more growth - in a different direction. Radical, off-the-wall ideas that can't possibly work...except for the one that does. Cold fusion. Orbital solar collectors. Asteroid mining. Geothermal.

There is a ridiculous amount of energy in the universe - it just so happens that the method we use to get it is limited and inefficient.

Me (2010-04-13T21:54:00-04:00)

There certainly is an awesome amount of energy in the universe, and steady growth (that is, exponential growth) has an incredible capacity for chewing through it. I once again strongly encourage you to watch Albert Bartlett's lecture on growth, which I referenced in this article. I would be very happy to have a watching and discussion party for just this topic.

Even more than that, what right do we have to consume all these resources, simply for our own comfort? All this power (in all of its forms) has deeply corrupted us, and seeking more will only continue that process.

Eric (2010-04-13T22:24:00-04:00)

1) Can we maintain a specific type of growth indefinitely? Of course not. The current recession is a perfect example: everybody wanted to keep economic growth at 5% per year, ignoring the impossibility. The question we have to ask, practically, is what form of growth is going to collapse first: energy or population, and what will it look like? I firmly believe that ZPG is impossible in the long run - you can't fight human nature. The real goal should be survival of the species in the wake of the inevitable collapse, and IMO, the best way to achieve that is by forming as many independent colonies off-planet as possible. EVERY form of energy production is a stop-gap measure; we're racing against entropy. If the universe collapses and dies before we run out, I'll consider it a win.

2) Do we have a right to consume resources? That's a loaded question. Life exists to perpetuate itself, and history's shown us that it'll use every trick it can to accomplish that. I don't think rights enter into it - long term survival of the species does. I'm a human; if it's us vs. the universe, I intend to go out swinging. I don't necessarily think we're corrupted; just short-sighted.

Me (2010-04-14T16:53:00-04:00)

Taking the short view, Cuba's response to the Special Period has led them to extremely low population growth (181 out of 233 countries tracked by the CIA World Factbook, at 0.23%). Certainly, their transition wasn't pleasant, but Cuba remains of particular interest because they essentially transitioned through an artificial Peak Oil situation and are now largely self-sufficient. Apparently, ZPG is also possible even with a less repressive government; nations even further down the CIA's list include Sweden, Belgium, and Germany. Interestingly, most commentators refer to extremely low, even negative, population growth throughout Europe as a crisis. But why is that a bad thing, again?

Taking the long view, we all die; entropy's going to get us, and that's fine. I would certainly like to reduce the amount of suffering that we collectively experience when we move through the upcoming crisis (or crises), but that's not the most important point. Don't we want to live good lives, lives that are not predicated on resource theft, gluttony, and self-deception? If we lived in balance with the resources around us, would we not then be able to use the surplus of resources for truly inspirational projects, rather than using these resources to simply push our growth as far as it will go until it all falls over?

Ken (2010-04-14T17:18:00-04:00)

get a job, hippy! BWAHAHAHAH!!!!

Eric (2010-04-13T19:19:00-04:00)

I don't believe that negative population growth is a bad thing - I think it's a great thing; I just think that it's impossible globally for an extended period of time.

The question about resource "theft," is: theft from whom? From the planet? From animals? We haven't granted anybody but humans property rights. Resource gluttony is absolutely a bad thing - because they won't be there for future generations.

I agree - the surplus of resources SHOULD go to truly inspirational projects, specifically:

  1. the long term survival of the species, which requires...

  2. weaning ourselves off of non-renewable resources.

I don't think the use (even overuse) of resources is inherently wrong, except in that it deprives someone else of their use. If electric power were free & infinite, I wouldn't feel guilty about leaving the lights on.

Ken (2010-04-14T20:15:00-04:00)

It's also worth remembering that as technology progresses, the range of things valued as commodities or resources will tend to grow in number as well as in scale. There was a time once when England was practically clear-cut for lumber, either for building materials or for fuel. It's grown back largely because we've learned methods for doing more with less and of course our source of building materials has become damn-near-everything. In the 80's, oil and natural gas wells were capped all over North America because the cost to refine was the rate-limiter, not the supply. Price dictates supply simultaneously as supply dictates price. Why have we quit burning whale oil? Because supply dropped when kerosene became cheaper, and then coal gas kicked kerosene's ass, and now natural gas has eliminated coal gas. I strongly suspect gallium-hydrogen will eliminate gasoline, but that's probably 20 years off yet. So why conserve oil? In 20 years it'll be obsolete, just another naturally occurring poison to kill your livestock when it pops up in your field. And the tree huggers of today will have all the baked spotted owls and polar bear sausage they can eat.

I didn't see any need to comment after that, because with their last comments it looked like Eric ended up agreeing with me and Ken pretty much refuted himself, although I think both would disagree with that assessment.

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