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.
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!
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.