Olduvai Theory, Success as Failure, and Yet Another Malthusian Mistake

When I’m a bit rushed, I’ll mark something, or open a tab on it, and then come back later. Sometimes “later” is long enough later that I’ve misplaced who or what brought me to that link. This is one of those. So if you brought it up as a pointer and I’ve not given attribution, please let me know. (Though I think it was a ‘link from a link from a link…’; I could be wrong…)

This is an example of Yet Another Malthusian leaping off a cliff of conclusion. Yet Another person way too mired in theory, and overly enamored of their theory, trying to fit it to data (and maybe fit data to it), leading to their ever increasing belief in their Pet Theory. Reality need not apply.

So what’s it all about? This is from the “Horrors! Running Out!!” camp (typified by Meadows et. al. and the Club Of Rome with “Limits To Growth” in the ’70s pushing the computer ‘projections’ that we were all going to be dead now and every key resource would be used up… Did you know we ran out of natural gas in the ’80s?… Yeah, that wrong.) This guy has clearly bought in to the exponential population growth meets fixed resources metaphor; swallowed it hook, line, sinker, and boat; and is now pushing a metric for just when and how we run out.

His thesis, like most such, is ‘simple, obvious, and wrong’. The thesis is that basically we are going to ‘use up’ all the energy supplies in one burst of industrial society, then exponential population growth will cause energy per person to start dropping with the inevitable result that we end up back at stone age levels of living. He does a nice curve fit, then makes the mistake of believing it…

My Odyssey with the Olduvai theory began thirty-two years ago during a lecture series titled, Of Men and Galaxies, given at the University of Washington by cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle.

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing high intelligence this is not correct. We have, or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only. (Hoyle, 1964; emphasis added)

Never mind the long history of advance of Empire and Civilization, followed by collapse and then by a new arising. Forget the Roman Empire and Dark Ages. Forget the Old Kingdom, collapse, and New Kingdom in Egypt. Forget Gobekli Tepe 10,000 years before. Forget the Greek Empire, the rise and fall of Byzantium, the collapse of the Anasazi followed by the rise of the USA, the various Chinese dynasties, the English Empire and post empire, the Holy Roman Empire, collapse and now the EU. No, we get only ONE shot at advanced civilization, then it is all over. Who knew?

Who: Richard C. Duncan, Ph.D.
Where: http://dieoff.com/page125.htm
What: The Olduvai Theory
Synopsis: Industrial societies are short lived, transient, and return to stone age levels with Watts/population as indicator.
Conclusion: We are all doomed, past peak W/pop and headed down, with scant years ahead for life as we know it.
Error: Forgets real populations grow in S shaped curves. Confounds energy efficiency with energy limits. Forgets that essential resources such as copper never leave the planet and what is a resource changes over time.

He pinpoints the time when the decline began as about 1977. In his POV it has all been down hill since.

Somehow the Arab Oil Embargo doesn’t enter his thinking. That we moved, wholesale, from large barge mobiles that got about 9 miles / gallon (my Chevy of that era and my Ford F350) to Honda 4 bangers and even my Mercedes that gets about 22 MPG in a nearly 2 ton car. Somehow the whole EPA mandated cleaner cars and gas mileage standards becomes an argument for Doom In Our Time, rather than success. CFL bulbs now mandated instead of incandescents becomes an argument for running out of electricity, rather than ‘more light from less’ meets constant lux levels needed to see.

The basic argument rests on two points. The same two that typically underscore the broken thinking of the “Horrors! Running Out!!” crowd.

1) Population growth is exponential.

It isn’t. It is S shaped as demonstrated by the fact that from the USA to the EU to Japan and China and Russia and… fecundity is plummeting to below replacement rates. My Dad was one of 13 children. I was one of 4. My son and daughter are each 1 of 2. Below the 2.x needed for replacement rate. They both have zero so far, and not a lot of time to change that much.

2) Resources are fixed, limited, and scarce. Energy more so with peak oil as an example.

They aren’t. What is a resource changes over time; ‘The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones’. 100 years ago silicon was used for rocks. 50 years ago it was mostly being researched with limited uses. Now it is the cornerstone of our increasingly electronic world. 100 years ago gasoline was a waste product of kerosene production and whale oil was a critical product being replaced by kerosene. Now whale oil is irrelevant, kerosene is mostly used in jets not lamps, and gasoline is critical… but being substituted by Diesel, natural gas, electricity, etc. in increasing amounts. Minerals do not leave the planet, so each ton of copper mined is still here. We don’t run out of copper, we run out of easy ore and move to almost-easy ore then to not-so-easy ore. At each step there is vastly MORE ore and more copper, not less. IFF we wanted to, we could power the entire planet from uranium from sea water at about present prices. This resource would last for as long as their is erosion of granite rocks in mountains. Tens to hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

Some of my prior links that relate:

How to make a very decent life style with little more than mud, trees, and a few scraps of iron (remember that most of the planet is iron, with ‘banded iron’ deposits being global and massive).

How to get all the energy a planet could ever need at prices not significantly different from the present (and far cheaper than solar, wind, etc. as practiced in the EU)


Even without that, there are many other sources of energy. At a minimum hundreds of years of coal. At a maximum it depends on how long the sun shines.


We have a lot of “stuff” and can make more as needed.


The basic point is that EVERYTHING is a ‘resource’ if we want it to be. Earthships are made from garbage. Worn out tires, empty cans and bottles, dirt. I would love to own an Earthship and live in it. They can harvest their own energy and water even in a desert like New Mexico, while they process their own waste streams and grow food. Do they really think we will run out of deserts, garbage, and dirt?

As some examples of the text in the Olduvai Theory page:

Note that the peak of Industrial Civilization was reached in about 1977 (point F), less than fifty years after it began. More significant, Figure 1 identifies the global energy “watershed”. For the first time in the gaping millennia of human existence, average per capita energy-use peaked and began to decline!

As I read it, the descent into the Olduvai valley will be steep and swift. A scenario of Phase 3, the Post-Industrial Phase, is sketched in Figure 1 (i.e., from point I onward) wherein Industrial Civilization has disintegrated into farming villages, kinship tribes and rogue bands. The surviving population will have “achieved” permanent sustainability—at the subsistence level.

Of course, other scenarios are possible. For example, “The human species may follow the road to extinction rather than revert to the berry-picking stage” (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971). Or more recently, “The danger of extinction is real … It is time to face the facts” (Leslie, 1996). However, because the circumstances of human society beyond the end of the second phase (i.e., point H. Figure 1) don’t effect my thesis, the third phase is de-emphasized in the remainder of this discussion.

So from their POV, 1977 was the best it could ever be and it has been all down hill since. Now my High Def TV takes a lot less power than the old Tube TV I had in ’77 (by a few hundred Watts…) and my car gets about 3 x the MPG (while being a whole lot more comfortable and safer) and my house was insulated in about ’83 cutting energy use and making it much more comfortable. I count all those as lifestyle improvements. He counts them as steps on the road to ‘Doom In Our Time!!!’; go figure…

But why worry about some crank ideas?
Maybe because they are being heard at high levels of the Loony Side Of Left?

As far as I know, credit goes to Robert H. Romer (1985) for first publishing the peak-period data for world per capita energy-use. He gives the peak at 1979, followed by a sharp decline through 1983, the last year of his data. However, this information was published as a relatively opaque worksheet. And curiously, no mention was made about the energy watershed. His data are graphed in Figure 2.

Credit likewise goes to Gibbons, et al. (1989; see Note 6) for an early publication of the peak-period of world per capita energy-use. The authors displayed the data as a viewer-friendly graph that peaked in 1973, followed by a steep downward slope through 1985. Here again, no mention was made about the significance of the peak or decline. Their curve is included in Figure 2.

[Note 6: Dr. Gibbons is Science Advisor to President Clinton.]

As previously mentioned, in 1993 I published two papers containing extensive world per capita energy-use data and presented that data as both worksheet values and plotted graphs. Moreover, I emphasized the importance of the peak and the implications of long-term decline. My first paper (1993b) shows the peak at 1978 and decline through 1991. My second paper (1993a) shows the peak at 1980 and decline through 1992. The two-year difference is due to the use of independent sets of data. In June 1996, I updated my tests of the Olduvai theory. This latest test shows the peak at 1978 followed by decline through 1995. The data are graphed in Figure 2.

Note that I’ve bolded the bit where these ideas were being “advised” to Clinton…

I’ll be polite and not point out that the “decline through 1995” is now well in the rear view mirror by almost 20 years… and that we are in an oil glut at the moment with prices crashing through $60 / bbl headed for $50 due to fracking and related technical advances along with improved fuel use technology. ;-)

But he has pretty graphs, “data”, and a ‘simple, obvious’ theory….

There is a moment of lucidity near the bottom:

Still, the impending Post-Industrial Stone Age is a tragedy because it really isn’t inevitable. There’s no absolute reason why we couldn’t live in material sufficiency on this planet for millions of years. But prudence isn’t our forte. “Even our success becomes failure.” And, in a way, it’s not our fault. Long ago Natural Selection dealt us a bad hand—we’re sexually prolific, tribal, short-term and self-centered. And after thousands of years of trying, Culture hasn’t changed that. And there is no sign that She will.

Backward to the future. Forward to the past. Almost perfect symmetry.

Almost “getting it” that there’s no real limit and we don’t have any issue of “running out”. Instead thinking the need is to cull the population of those who are “sexually prolific” and “tribal”. (Guess he doesn’t like macho Mexicans, Black Guys, and most of the Catholic Celts I’ve ever met ;-) Maybe someday he’ll realize it isn’t about being ‘prolific’ it is about being creative with what is a resource.

(For those wishing to berate me with some ‘racist’ rant crap for referencing Catholics, Mexicans and Blacks: Do remember, I’m one of those from the tribe of Catholic Celts, with Celt ancestors and both Mother, Father, and spouse Catholics. I spent much of my ‘growing up’ years in a Mexican home as my best friend and I swapped homes and meals for a few decades, and I speak Spanish and have since about age 8 to some degree. Oh, and a couple of very close friends are black, along with their being several friends of mixed black/whatever ancestry – I think to include my future grandchildren… and I’m just fine with that. I like Mexican movies, hanging with black folks [who have much better parties and some damn fine food], and only get grumpy when folks try to make us hate each other with race bating. Part of why I find Dimocrats tedious. Constantly trying to put ‘issues’ between me and my friends based on THEIR racists goals. So yes, I’m going to be honest and clear about it all and no, I’m not going to have one whit of ‘white guilt’. My Irish ancestors were treated as ‘indentured servants’ and about equal to black slaves in the slavery era; so bugger off. I’m more interested in building a future where we can recognize our differences and celebrate them; rather than spending time trying to pretend we are all something fake. Did I mention that race baiters can bugger off?…)

So back at the reality of resources…

This kind of clap trap is typical of those folks who have no Engineering background. Unlike them, folks who do mining and refining, building and designing, creating the future: we have no time for BS like “Running Out!! PANIC!!!”. We look at a pile of rocks and see stone axes, Earthships, cement freeways, silicon chips, uranium and unlimited energy. They see a pile of useless rocks. We look at less energy and more production, more transport, and more comfort and see progress. They see doom in our time.

When you see this kind of Malthusian crap, just tell them to bugger off. And not too politely, please. If you are too polite, they hang around and argue about it. Better to get them to go away in a huff so you can get back to inventing the future and finding ways to use carbon nanotubes to make superior batteries and turn sea water into pure water with nothing but some plastic and dirt. Oh, and farming the air (aeroponics) and creating abundance out of nothing… It’s a whole lot more fun than crying in your mineral water about “running out”…


I just love this picture:

Grow Food When There’s Snow Outside!
The Friendly Aquaponic Solar Greenhouse grows 11.85 times as many plants as other aquaponics system designs per square foot of greenhouse floor area, at one-seventh the cost per plant space! Why is this a big deal? Because their costs don’t even include the greenhouse and its heating and cooling systems, and ours do!

Aquaponics in the snow

Aquaponics in the snow


From their ‘technology’ link:

Our technology has many advantages. Even in the most hostile, arid regions, the Seawater Greenhouse can create ideal growing conditions for crops inside the greenhouse and produce fresh water for irrigation, using only seawater and sunlight. The system does not rely on scarce fresh water, costly desalination equipment or fossil-fuel driven greenhouse climate control systems. Seawater Greenhouse growers can therefore enjoy these advantages from both an economic and environmental perspective.

The technology can be used to produce a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers etc. in most of the world’s driest regions. The Greenhouses can be adapted to suit a variety of customers, from small to large-scale growers.

Those who can, do.
Those who can’t, complain that ‘those who can’ couldn’t possibly be better than them and actually do it… then find endless reasons why it can’t be done, even while it IS being done.

Did I mention that you ought to tell them to just bugger off? Time wasters is all they are. “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way” comes to mind.

Subscribe to feed

About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Earth Sciences, Economics - Trading - and Money, Energy, Political Current Events and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Olduvai Theory, Success as Failure, and Yet Another Malthusian Mistake

  1. tom0mason says:


    I spotted this one many years ago ( http://www.sciencearchive.org.au/nova/newscientist/027ns_005.htm?
    q=nova/newscientist/027ns_005.htm ). It’s a piece from New Scientist, a place that once was a seriously interesting magazine (Dedalus section certainly used to make me laugh).
    In detail:

    Without more recycling, antimony, which is used to make flame-retardant
    materials, will run out in 15 years, silver in 10 and indium in under five. In a
    more sophisticated analysis, Reller has included the effects of new technologies,
    and projects how many years we have left for some key metals. He estimates
    that zinc could be used up by 2037, both indium and hafnium – which is
    increasingly important in computer chips – could be gone by 2017, and terbium
    – used to make the green phosphors in fluorescent light bulbs – could run out
    before 2012.

    This prediction was made in 2008. You recall how Apple stopped shipping iPads last year as the indium tin oxide to make the screens ran out? That we’ve been completely bereft of CFL lightbulbs for two years now as the terbium disappeared? No and no? Exactly.

    Utter GIGO from the Malthusian nutcases of the world.

    Most of the Hafnium we have is a by-product of processing zircon (the mineral sand) from which we extract zirconia (the oxide) and ultimately zirconium (the metal), we find that it contains two to four per cent Hf. We don’t care though, Zr and Hf are so chemically similar that we just don’t bother to separate them. That is not until the price is right. And that is the bit the Malthusians miss. Market forces will provide!

  2. Don Matias says:

    Cn nt lbrt n th sbjct, cmptr’s mmry rn t f vwls, srry.

  3. gallopingcamel says:

    My favorite example of “Doing More With Less” is the telephone. As a child I traveled on the LNER (London, North Eastern Railway) marveling at the way the phone lines moved when observed from a train travelling at high speed. Later in life I learned these lines consisted of “2,000 pound copper wire” which means that it took 4,000 pounds of copper to carry one telephone conversation a single mile.

    Today we can carry one telephone conversation one mile using 0.23 pounds of silicon dioxide (sand). This works out at a weight reduction of 17,000 to one. However, the sand (optical fiber) can carry 30,000,000 phone calls instead of just one.

    A little less spectacular (yet quite impressive) example can be found in nuclear power technology. Generation IV nuclear reactors have a fuel efficiency 100-200 times better than our current fleet of nuclear reactors. It takes 100-200 tonnes of nuclear fuel to run a 1 GWe installation for a year. Gen IV reactors can produce the same output using only one tonne of nuclear fuel.

    Greater fuel efficiency means proportionally less nuclear waste and as a bonus the radioactivity of the waste diminishes to safe levels much more rapidly than the waste from Gen I & II reactors.

    With Gen I & II reactors the easily accessible Uranium fuel is sufficient to power our industrial society for ~1,000 years but with the increased fuel efficiency of Gen IV reactors and the ability to “Burn” Thorium there are enough easily accessible resources to last at least 400,000 years.

    When the easily available fuel runs out there is 4.5 billion tonnes of Uranium dissolved in sea water. With Gen IV technology it takes less than 2,500 tonnes of Uranium to produce the 20,000 TWh that mankind consumes each year. Uranium from sea water would keep us going another 1,800,000 years!

    Thermo-nuclear reactors have the potential to produce unlimited electrical power until there is no more hydrogen in the universe. Given that there is still plenty of hydrogen 13.8 billion years after the “Big Bang” it seems safe to assume that hydrogen will be available for at least another 100 billion years.

    We have come a long way since the whale oil to power our lamps started to run out, yet we are poised for an even more rapid rate of innovation. People alive today will see thermo-nuclear fusion displace Generation IV fission reactors.

  4. R. de Haan says:

    Great article as always.
    We have morons all over the place.

    As for owning an earth ship made of garbage in a desert, no thank you but a nice home build from containers on a hill side with in an area with great weather and stunishing views… no problem with that: http://www.homedsgn.com/2011/06/16/containers-of-hope-a-40000-home-by-benjamin-garcia-saxe/ For me it’s about design, functionality and price and 40.000 USD for a home like that is peanuts.

    Old tires by the way can be be burned or processed back into fuel. It’s just a shame to use such a great material to build homes when steel, straw, clay, mud and wood make such a better and more sophisticated construction materials.

    I just turned a second hand industrial building (steel frame) into a dental praxis.
    The steel facade was replaced by glass and we put in a second floor, doubling the space.

    Ever seen a dental praxis with a fire engine in the waiting room? The kids love it and all fear for the dentist gas gone.

    That’s what you can do thinking out of the box.

    No problem using second hand construction material when it’s functional and you can build three times the size for the same money.

  5. Terry Jay says:

    You may have Celtic origins, mine are Manx. Contemplate what that means for diversity, and for survivability. Carry on.

  6. tom0mason says:

    Another news report of how ‘Climate Change’ aka CAGW is destroying all we hold sacred –


  7. Larry Ledwick says:

    As you point out population growth only “appears” exponential in its early stages when it has essentially no natural constraints. IE. the mold spot on that stuff in your fridge. It in reality grows in a “logistic curve”. This is the result of exponential growth with a negative feed back providing constraint. The larger the growth the stronger the constraint.

    Logistic curves have 3 basic shapes. The classic S shaped curve where population grows exponentially until it starts to run into physical constraints then it decays exponentially as the negative feed back dominates growth and it approaches the maximum carrying capacity of its environment. Classic example is how a disease like the flu spreads in a population. Infection rate grows exponentially until about 1/2 of the population is infected or become immune due to earlier infection (physical constraint). Then the rate of growth decays exponentially as the total number of infected and immune approaches the total population. (the infection cannot spread because everyone who can catch it already has or is now immune.)

    The second is temporary over shoot where the growth briefly over shoots the stable carrying capacity then falls back to the stable carrying capacity.

    The third is overshoot and crash (which is really what they are talking about). This is the case where the overshoot is so large that the waste products of the infection kill the host and then the infection goes to extinction due to the death of the host.

    There is a special case half way between the last two where the damage due to the over shoot permanently changes the carrying capacity, A good example of this is small pox. It was such a terrible disease that we created a world wide vaccination program which changed the carrying capacity of the world for small pox infection by making almost the entire population immune through vaccination. That broke the transmission of the disease and allowed it to die out, except for small research stocks, and perhaps some long frozen small pox fatality which will be dug up some day when the vaccination program is a distant memory. In the short term the carrying capacity for small pox infection is essentially zero.

    The Malthusians dire predictions are only correct in their interpretations in that one special case of over shoot and crash. The other outcomes are far far more likely.

  8. omanuel says:

    The two greatest threats to society are:

    1. The pulsar-centered Sun that made our elements, birthed the solar system and sustains today every atom, life and world in the solar system, a volume of space greater than 10^19 Earth’s.

    2. Government-supported misrepresentation of the Sun as a stable Hydrogen-fusion reactor.

    Even Homeland Security officials now admit this threat to the survival of civilization:


  9. Unfortunately it is possible to run out of stuff if we’re not clever enough. This looks to apply to Madagascar ( see http://www.wildmadagascar.org/conservation/threats.html ) where they are running out of trees. The same seems to have happened with Easter Island ( http://rainforests.mongabay.com/09easter_island.htm ) and a balance of use and regeneration needs to be achieved for a stable society.

    It looks like we’ll have a cheaper nuclear-based energy source fairly soon, with the amount of research that’s continuing. That will enable previously-uneconomic methods of getting what we need, including the materials necessary to produce that nearly-free energy. As noted above, farming can be a lot more intensive and can be done nearly anywhere there is space to do it, and recycling can be a lot more intensive – we can mine the old rubbish-dumps to get the materials we need. There’s plenty there, and it’s just been uneconomical to recover it – cheaper to mine some new stuff instead. It hasn’t gone away, though, except for the stuff we’ve sent to the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system and beyond.

    To me, it looks like the main resource that is important is clear thinking. There’s more than enough of everything else.

  10. R. de Haan says:

    Right, clear thinking is what is used by the pundits that run the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/new-era-of-cheap-oil-will-destroy-green-revolution-9922217.html

    Some of the comments are a better read than the article.

  11. E.M.Smith says:


    Nothing prevents us from being stupid. But our stupidity is not a limitation on nature, either…

    So just as “guns don’t kill people, people do” does not prevent people from killing each other with guns; neither does gun confiscation prevent folks from killing each other in novel ways…

    So yes, folks in Madagascar can be stupid and cut down all their trees. Yet nothing prevents them from planting rapid growth rate ( poplar or eucalyptus) species on the cleared land and doing coppicing. Or, for that matter, shifting to using fermented goat poo for cooking fuel ( ‘gobar gas’ or bio-methane or ‘farts in a can’ or …)

    In a way, that’s sort of my point… as you said in your last line. It isn’t resources that are limited or limiting. It is what we choose to do with them and what we think of to make happen.

  12. DonM says:

    …. “This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only”

    Knowing that I am partially responsible for the long term failure of the solar systems’ ability to sustain intelligent life … that’s a tough burden to carry. Mebbe I need to donate some cash to the Sierra Club, GreenPeas, or the some similar helpful organization to mitigate my guilt.

    On the other hand, I could just say “screw it, nothing I do will ever satisfy …”, and start throwing my plastic milk jugs (and other “recyclables”) into the regular trash … I feel better already.

  13. agimarc says:

    Ever run across Julian Simon’s “The Ultimate Resource?” I read the second edition. He makes the case that the ultimate resource – or only the only necessary one is human ingenuity, which for some reason the anti’s figure does not exist anywhere except as a vehicle to execute their obstructionism of progress. Cheers –


  14. DonM says:

    I have never understood the concept that human population growth is, and always will be, positive and exponential. We sit here on the positive slope of the curve and don’t have the ability to see past the hill … the bumps (oscillations) behind us are so small that we see them as meaningless (and they really are because they are estimates based on guesses, but they are indeed there).

    I can’t think of any other species population that is anything but cyclical (‘cept for the extinct ones, but they may have indeed cycled into zero rather dropping off a precipice). We will eventually hit the top of the curve and then eventually drop off on a negative slope … those that say they can even remotely come close to guessing the timing/extent of the peak, or the rate/extent of decline are deluded … the people want to control the rate/extent/timing for the general welfare of everyone else are worse than deluded.

  15. Jason Calley says:

    @ Don Matias “Cn nt lbrt n th sbjct, cmptr’s mmry rn t f vwls, srry.”

    Ha! I am reminded of an argument long ago that hard drives full of ones weighed more than hard drives full of zeroes.

    @ E.M. “But our stupidity is not a limitation on nature, either…”

    It is difficult not to notice the logarithmic increase in the abundance of stupid. I have tried to design a generator that burns only stupid for fuel, but am currently at an impasse; it may be that stupid is both too powerful and too dangerous to ever be widely useful. Oppenheimer is reported to have said “I am become Stupid, destroyer of worlds…”

    On a more serious note, I must agree with you and the others that we have the technology to solve almost all of our important resource problems. We could turn Earth into something much closer to the Jetson’s — but we don’t. Not to belabor the issue, but we humans are being held back primarily by social, cultural and political problems (and I would file economic problems under the “political” category.) In the fairly recent past, technological advances have often accidentally solved social and cultural problems. There is the obvious case of machinery ending child labor and chattel slavery. Maybe digital information technology will solve the problem of stupidity. More importantly, we need a technological solution to the problem of people who are sociopaths.

  16. Gail Combs says:

    Dr. Gibbons has a Ph.D. in physics from Duke University.

    ….began his career in physics. For 15 years he conducted experiments in nuclear structure at Duke and then Oak Ridge, with an emphasis on neutron capture reactions–key to understanding nucleosynthesis of heavy elements inside stars. His growing interest in energy resource conservation and the environment led him to undertake work at the University of Tennessee on technologies for increased efficiency throughout the energy services system. He was appointed the first director of the U.S. Office of Energy Conservation (1973-1974) and later led related studies at The National Academies. He directed the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (1979-1992) and was science advisor to President Bill Clinton (1993- 1998). Post-White House, he was senior advisor to the Department of State, assisting the Secretary in creating the post of science advisor to the Secretary. He was the MIT Compton Lecturer (1998-1999), senior fellow at the National Academy of Engineering (1999-2000)


    This guy should have been pushing nuclear power not spreading doom and gloom.

  17. Gail Combs says:

    Simon Derricutt says:
    15 December 2014 at 10:00 am

    Unfortunately it is possible to run out of stuff if we’re not clever enough. …. The same seems to have happened with Easter Island ( http://rainforests.mongabay.com/09easter_island.htm ) and a balance of use and regeneration needs to be achieved for a stable society.
    Actually Easter Island was stable.

    The whole story was a fairytale – a kind of wishful thinking. Archeologists have now found that:

    1) The island was habited much later than previously estimated. Not in the 400’s, but between the years the 1200 – 1600.

    2) The population was never larger than it was when the island was found by westerners.

    3) The trees were not lost because the people over-harvested them, but because rats ate all the seeds.

    4) Losing the trees was not a big deal for the population. They were fit and healthy when they were found.

    5) The collapse that came later was caused by smallpox and STD’s that came with the first europeans that found them. Later many were taken as slaves.

    Certainly sounds a lot more plausible to me.

  18. Gail – thanks for the nice example of how today’s knowledge can become tomorrow’s fairy-tale. I didn’t do a deep search on that one so didn’t find the alternate ideas about what happened. Most of our ideas on history are based on inferences or what was written about them by the winners (or the survivors) and even for things that happened yesterday we can’t be too sure that we’ve been told the truth.

    Madagascar, though, does seem to be running out of trees. That at least looks plausible, and as EM says they could do something about it rather than using them up.

    It does seem that most of the time we’re running on best guesses rather than solid data.

  19. Brian H says:

    Love your analyses Chiefio!

    Here’s the Big One, IMO, the penultimate demonstration of many of your theses: LPPhysics.com . To briefly summarize, a palm-size rig (small is necessary) can do fusion-fission of H and B into C, which splits into He, with lots of energy output, much of it carried by a flow of He ions, directly translatable into electricity. Which costs about $50/MW to build capacity for, and can be sold for about 0.3¢/kWh at a profit sufficient to pay off the equipment and support structure etc. in a year or two. The rigs are self-contained, and hence can be trucked and installed anywhere, supplying about 5MW each for ~350 days/yr, 24/7, dispatchable in seconds (adjust-to-load), with no waste, and emitting only b/g rads after about 9 hrs cooling down (for refuel or maintenance).

    This will produce wealth and ‘resources’ beyond the dreams of avarice, world-wide and beyond. Using planetary accessible boron only, till about when the sun goes red giant, if we decide to let it.

  20. Brian H says:

    Correction above: $50/kW capacity

Comments are closed.