< meta name="DC.Date.Valid.End" content="20050909">

Saturday, September 03, 2005

None so blind as those that won't see

As the price of oil increases more and more attention is paid to the reasons for this rise. This has meant that the words ‘peak oil’ have started to appear ever more frequently in print and other media. With this new found recognition has come the inevitable refutations and disputations.

An article by Peter Maas has drawn fire from Stephen Levitt, author of the best selling Freakonomics. James Howard Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency has had several hostile reviews. Matt Savinar, over at life after the oil crash, has been the target of a serial denunciator writing in a peak oil forum.

As Matt points out in his rebuttal, as oil prices rose it was entirely predictable that there would be a raft of people who would appear to try to refute peak oil. What is surprising is that the people that do this are often very intelligent, some of them leaders in their fields. But no matter their credentials, a blindness to the fundamental nature of energy resources is a common feature of people from all walks of life.

This is almost uncomfortably illustrated by Steven Pinker in his 2002 book ‘The Blank Slate’. Pinker, who’s books have done more to popularise evolutionary psychology and the modern science of the human mind than anyone I can think of, is an exceptionally lucid writer with a penetrating intelligence. His ‘How the Mind Works’ is a peerless exposition of the current state of knowledge in a wide range of fields. He spares no holy cows in explaining the origin of our passions, prejudices and pastimes.

But in ‘The Blank Slate’, in a chapter appropriately titled ‘Out of Our Depths’ he offers the folowing:
“The immediate problem with Malthusian prophecies is that they underestimate the effects of technological change in increasing the resources that support a comfortable life…[In the twentieth century] reserves of oil and minerals increased, rather than decreased, because engineers could find more of them and figure out new ways to get at them… Many people are reluctant to grant technology this seemingly miraculous role… But recently the economist Paul Romer has invoked the combinatorial nature of cognitive information processing to show how the circle might be squared after all. He begins by pointing out that human material existence is limited by ideas, not by stuff. People don’t need coal or copper wire or paper per se; They need ways to heat their homes, communicate with other people, and store information. Those needs don’t need to be satisfied by increasing the availability of physical resources. They can be satisfied by using new ideas - recipes, designs, or techniques – to rearrange existing resources to yield more of what we want. For example, petroleum used to be just a contaminant of water wells; then it became a source of fuel, replacing the declining supply of whale oil.” (The Blank Slate, Pinker, pp 237-8)

Does Pinker really believe that human existence is limited only by ideas!? Does he suppose that if I think that I can run my car on sand it will happen. To suggest that we don’t need resources per se, just better ways to use them, is tantamount to saying that we can use any resource to do any job, or any amount of any resource to do a specific job. This is so patently untrue as to be laughable.

What Pinker is missing is that technological change invariably engenders an increase in the use of resources, particularly energy resources. His last point, that oil has gone from a contaminant to a fuel, actually demonstrates this fact. But it seems that he is saying is; when we have used up oil, just as we did with whales, something else that was once undesirable will step into the breach. If he has an inside running on what this is maybe he should tell someone.

The industrial era, with its ever-expanding energy budget has lulled people like Pinker into treating resources as largely irrelevant. In an age of plenty it certainly does seem like if you think it, then it will come to pass. But this is a temporary delusion. As we transition from using what is undoubtedly the best energy resource the planet was ever endowed with, to other more diffuse sources, all of the resources we have taken for granted will be more difficult to acquire.

Technology doesn’t increase the resources that are available for us to use. It changes the rate at which we can extract them, and it changes which resources are accessible at any point in time. But, like it or not, the amount of any fossil fuel or mineral resource is a fixed quantity. It is irresponsible to continue the myth that technology will only increase the amount of ‘stuff' available to us. In fact, technology hastens the day when we will have used all of the stuff up.

Pinker goes on to invoke the unlimited power of discrete combinatorial systems to come up with new ideas. The human mind is a remarkable organ and not to be taken lightly, but we shouldn’t confuse our ability to think up new ideas with an ability to defy the physical laws of the universe.

The arguments that are put forward so uncritically in this passage are, unsurprisingly, those of an economist. We see exactly the same arguments from Levitt in his commentary on Peter Maas' article for the NY Times. Would it be too much to expect that economists might actually shift their gaze from the market to the physical realities of resource use? Do they not actually talk to people that work in the fields they so happily prognosticate on?

Maybe the final judgment should go to Pinker himself:
"Self Deception is among the deepest roots of human strife and folly. It implies that the faculties that ought to allow us to settle our differences - seeking the truth and discussing it rationally - are miscalibrated so that all parties see themselves as wiser, abler and nobler than they really are." (The Blank Slate, Pinker, pp.265)