Efficiency, Substitution and Innovation isn't All It is Cracked Up to Be

About a month ago I had the privilege of spending an hour talking (on stage, in front of an audience) to my congressman, Paul Tonko, about energy issues and preparedness. What emerged from this discussion was that *EVEN THOUGH* Tonko is one of the best congresspeople out there on energy and environmental issues, even though he's a tremendously smart guy, even though he actually has had some real education on peak oil issues, the two of us were talking past each other in many ways. It was fascinating - I know that Tonko grasps the basic idea, but the narrative in which efficiency, substitution and innovation always come and save the day had such a powerful grip on him that the actual mathematics were secondary.

One of the things that I noticed was the biggest barrier to our talking to each other, rathe than past, was the tendency to assume that technological innovations that are not yet ready for prime time, and may never be, are just around the corner. So, for example, during a lively debate about the impact of biofuels, Tonko spoke of Cellulosic Ethanol as though it were here, and an inevitable high EROEI response. The same was true of Carbon capture and storage - and yet, at this point neither of those technologies is really fully available to us. Yet the habit of assuming that all technological shifts will "play out" and come out with net Energy returns was an underlying assumption.

Another difference, one that I think is equally common is to focus on scientific achievement and innovation as though they are sole base on which things stand, while rendering invisible the heavy natural resource base that is at least as fundamental. If you erase the history of how abundant cheap energy has made possible scientific innovation and technological progress, and think that these are purely academic and intellectual accomplishments, springing from the head of Zeus without any inconvenient dirty contact with the oil, gas and coal below, then it is easy to believe that in an era of declining resources progress will move as swiftly as before. If you choose to see the resource base below it, however, that changes that view.

I'm not attacking Tonko - as I've written before our society is so profoundly invested in narratives of technological progress that in many ways, the only alternative seems to be apocalypticism. I've written many times about what I call the "Klingons/Cylons Dilemma" in which the only choices we are permitted to imagine are the perfect, sanitized and processed world of Star Trek, in which all problems except Klingons are solved (ie, all problems that come from within us are resolved, the only problems come from the unenlightened outside) or the Apocalyptic world where our technologies destroy us utterly and only a small plucky band of survivors makes its way across the blasted landscape. These two narratives have a hold of us so powerfully, that it makes it almost impossible to even speak of other narratives - to find the middle ground that most of us are actually facing.

That's why I'm glad Richard Heinberg is doing the hard work of fully articulating why all this just doesn't happen magically. In his latest book, he's setting down the arguments (again, he's made them before in _The Party's Over_ and _Powerdown_) in a way that help reach as many people as possible. Most of the people who read this blog already grasp this, and there's a temptation to write mostly to the people who have already gotten the basics down. My hour with Tonko was a great reminder for me just how important it is to recite the basics again...and again...and again, because it takes a long time for people to be able to hear them. I'm so glad Heinberg, who has been doing it longer and better, is doing it now:

The near-religious belief that economic growth depends not on energy and resources, but solely on increasing innovation, efficiency, trade, and division of labor, can sometimes lead economists to say silly things.

Some of the silliest and most extreme statements along these lines are to be found in the writings of the late Julian Simon, a longtime business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. In his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, Simon declared that natural resources are effectively infinite and that the process of resource substitution can go on forever. There can never be overpopulation, he declared, because having more people just means having more problem-solvers.

How can resources be infinite on a small planet such as ours? Easy, said Simon. Just as there are infinitely many points on a one-inch line segment, so too there are infinitely many lines of division separating copper from non-copper, or oil from non-oil, or coal from non-coal in the Earth. Therefore, we cannot reliably quantify how much copper, oil, coal, or neodymium or gold there really is in the world. If we can't measure how much we have of these materials, that means the amounts are not finite--thus they are infinite.[1]

It's a logical fallacy so blindingly obvious that you'd think not a single vaguely intelligent reader would have let him get away with it. Clearly, an infinite number of dividing lines between copper and non-copper is not the same as an infinite quantity of copper. While a few critics pointed this out (notably Herman Daly), Simon's book was widely praised nevertheless.[2] Why? Because Simon was saying something that many people wanted to believe.

Simon himself is gone, but his way of thinking is alive and well in the works of Bjorn Lomborg, author of the bestselling book The Skeptical Environmentalist and star of the recent documentary film Cool It.[3] Lomborg insists that the free market is making the environment ever healthier, and will solve all our problems if we just stop scaring ourselves needlessly about running out of resources.


More like this

Efficiency, Substitution and Innovation. All worthy tactics which we should persue. But we shouldn't assume they will enable BAU to continue. They could make the future more comfortable, or at least survivable though. We're going to need all we can. A little non-muscle energy is a couple of orders of magnitude better than none at all.


Sharon - I agree, I'm glad Heinberg is writing his new book. It's one that really needs to be written.

I know you have some contact with him, and I'm wondering if you can pass on this message: he needs to get an editor. His books have so much good information that if he just got someone to do some cleaning up of the text and formatting it'd come across better. Consider Powerdown, which was pretty good except for the parts where he goes off into tangents about 9/11 and other things. Or The Party's Over, which is one of the best books of its kind, but is weirdly formatted in parts and spends a lot of text on some things and very little on equally important things. At least Peak Everything has a disclaimer that it's a collection of random essays.

I really don't mean to be negative - I really like his books. I just think this book he's writing now is of such importance to society that he really needs to polish it as much as possible.

Wait, the guy cited Zeno's paradox as reason to believe we have infinite natural resources? And people took him seriously?

I've met several scientists who left Russia when it was very newly ex-USSR, and they were *extremely pointed* about how much more they could get done with less equipment and power than was usual in Western labs. (They were not adequately admired for this. I hope they found places that realized how useful it could be.)

Now, the USSR was also wasting resources, and there is a limit to how clever you can be while digging turnips -- something else the USSR established by experiment -- but there's room between BAU and no more high-tech innovation. We just have to live like late-stage Muscovite outsiders, sort of a footnote to Orlov.