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Energy Solutions

The End of Peak Oil?

With new oil discoveries and more effective extraction methods, the world is probably many decades away from peak oil

Image 1 of 2
Since 1991, proven oil reserves have increased 60%, according to oil industry estimates. These increased oil reserves are likely to delay the arrival of peak oil.
Image Credit: Mike Baird
Since 1991, proven oil reserves have increased 60%, according to oil industry estimates. These increased oil reserves are likely to delay the arrival of peak oil.
Image Credit: Mike Baird
This graph shows the "Hubbert curve" of world oil production, with the presumed peak occurring in this decade. This predication was widely accepted just a few years ago.
Image Credit: Energy Watch Group, UK

I first wrote about “peak oil” in 1998, reporting on an in-depth article in Scientific American by petroleum geologists Colin Campbell, PhD, and Jean Laherrère. Campbell and Laherrère believed that up to that time the world had consumed about 800 billion barrels of oil (BBO), and the known reserves of conventional crude oil totaled about 850 bbl in 1996 and another 200 BBO of conventional oil was yet to be discovered.

The result, they argued, was that the world would reach the halfway point — or the peak — in (conventional) world oil production within the first decade of the 21st century. That peak would occur, they argued, when cumulative world oil consumption reached about 925 BBO. (At that time the world was consuming 23.6 BBO per year.)

The significance of peak oil is that once that point is reached, so the proponents argue, annual oil production will begin an inexorable decline with a concomitant rise in cost. It would become too expensive to use oil for many uses, and the “end of the oil age” would be in sight.

This was a resonant chord for a lot of people — myself included. The end of cheap oil would mean the shift to cleaner fuels and a slowing of the release of greenhouse gasses. It would result in improvements in fuel economy of vehicles; it would encourage homeowners to shift to cleaner heating fuels; and it would spur the development of plug-in hybrid vehicles that could be powered by solar electricity. “Peak oil” became a rallying cry and the subject of dozens of books.

So where are we today, relative to peak oil?

Statistics on world oil production, consumption, and reserves are tracked by various entities; one widely quoted source is the BP Statistical Review of World Energy; I am pulling numbers from the 2012 edition, which includes data through 2011. Unlike The Campbell and Laherrère statistics quoted above, the BP statistics include unconventional oil, such as tar sands and very deep deposits.

Proven reserves of oil, according to the BP report, totaled 1,653 BBO at the end of 2011. This compares with proven reserves in 2001 (ten years earlier) of 1,267 BBO and proven reserves in 1991 (twenty years earlier) of 1,033 BBO. In other words, since 1991, the proven reserves have increased 60%. (Some challenge the BP statistics; you can read a contrasting view in this post on The Oil Drum.)

Global annual consumption of oil in 2011 totaled 32.1 BBO, up from 26.1 BBO in 1996 (according to the BP statistics). As a point of reference, 32.1 billions of barrel per year converts to about 1,000 barrels per second. (One barrel is defined as 42 gallons, so that’s about 42,000 gallons per second.) Big numbers.

Since the end of 2011, as more deep-sea Brazilian oil and oil recovered through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) comes online, I’m guessing that the rate of increase in proven reserves could actually increase over the next few decades.

Furthermore, I predict that the once all-important distinction between “conventional” and “unconventional” oil will break down over time. As technologies improve for very deep drilling (measured in miles rather than feet), such wells will become more common. Fracking will become more common as a strategy for rejuvenating oil fields that had been considered depleted. I don’t like this, particularly given the huge risks and environmental impacts of such extraction methods, but I fear that it’s the reality.

Reduce oil production for other reasons

What all this means, I believe, is that we should shift away from the motivation of peak oil as our reason for promoting alternatives. A peak in world oil production — due to supply limits — just isn’t going to happen anytime soon, perhaps not even in our lifetimes. We need to use other arguments for curtailing our consumption of oil and other fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas.

Fossil fuels are highly polluting in their extraction, combustion, and (especially with coal) waste disposal. More importantly, these energy sources release into the atmosphere vast quantities of carbon dioxide, the most significant of the greenhouse gasses that are contributing to global climate change.

While the political world has shifted away from climate change as an issue, I believe that is a very short-lived phenomena that will evaporate as quickly as those rare showers on Nebraska corn fields this summer. It wouldn’t surprise me if climate change returns as an issue of debate as soon as the November elections this year.

Temperature records are being broken by the thousands this year, with July the hottest month ever recorded in the U.S. — going back to 1895, when widespread recordkeeping began. Drought covers 63% of the nation, and is driving up the cost of food worldwide (see the Drought Monitor, which is updated weekly). Dry conditions are fueling record fires in Colorado and elsewhere. Scientists are almost universally accepting of the role humans have played in creating this climate change; as more of the public feels the effects I believe they will force politicians to finally stand up and do something about it.

Forget about peak oil. Let’s get on with dealing with climate change.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


  1. davidmeiland | | #1

    Say what??
    >>as more of the public feels the effects I believe they will force politicians to finally stand up and do something about it

    Alex, you do get bonus points for not calling out energy companies by name and blaming them for the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. I heard a lengthy radio piece a couple of days ago where the narrator repeatedly blamed Exxon, Shell, and others for what's happening with climate change.

    The reality is, they're just supplying a product that every consumer wants. Until consumers start finding alternatives, fossil fuels will continue to be used and the climate will degrade. Time to stop blaming energy companies and politicians for this, and look at ourselves.

  2. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #2

    Reserves mean little- pumping rate vs. demand drives price
    Even with improved scavenging methods and new strikes, oil production rates need to be able to ramp in pace with or ahead of the increasing demand to hold the line on price. For a long time now the world's max pumping rate has been plateaued at ~85mbbl/day, as the average daily demand has varied. But with the rapid development of large Asian economies and the middle classes of those economies buying cars in record numbers, even when declining demand in N. America is factored in the prospects of ramping production quickly enough seem limited, and a forecast for high price volatility over the next decade seems credible.

    Analyses of the 2008 price spike indicate that at ~85mbbl/day, even tripling the price doesn't raise the pumping rate significantly. Even 4 years in the $100/bbl (well over the prior decade's average) has only produced marginally higher pumping rates, even though the proven reserves have climbed dramatically. With a sufficiently high price over a long enough time production capacity might even hit 90-100mbbl/day, but is that going to be enough to reduce price volatility in the face of increasing demand?

    More cars were sold in China last year than North America, and that's an economy only recently edging below double-digit expansion rates, with a BOOMING middle class population. By 2025 the size of the Chinese middle class is expected to exceed the population of the US, and most of them will be driving (though not as many miles as US drivers, on average.)

    A good portion of the "new" reserves is a function of what's profitable to scavenge at the current price of oil from fields once considered depleted (from an economic point of view) at at $30/bbl price point. While that oil IS in the ground and recoverable and large, the rate at which those field can actually pump is considerably lower than a freshly-tapped oil field.

    The good news is that we're not running out soon, but the bad news is that it'll continue to be much more expensive than in the past due to increased demand and a limited ability to ramp production rates with rapidly expanding demand for oil from large developing economies.

    Should the world oil fall back below $50/bbl the reserves and production rate would fall, since that would force exotic & expensive (and very inefficient & dirty from a greenhouse gas point of view) bitumen sand operations to shut down, since they'd be losing money on every barrel. This would be true for some (but not all) of the oil-field scavenging methodologies as well.

    Without a plan to increase efficiency or swap energy sources for much of the transportation sector, whether world oil production has peaked or not, the US will be in for a very rough economic ride. The US is currently consuming ~20% of the world production, but even cutting that in half over the next two decades isn't enough to single-handedly offset the rising demand in Asia.

    Then there's that nasty climate change issue...

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Dana Dorsett
    You wrote, "The good news is that we're not running out [of oil] soon, but the bad news is that it'll continue to be much more expensive than in the past."

    Those of use concerned about climate change would probably turn your sentence on its head: "The bad news is that we're not running out [of oil] soon, but the good news is that it'll continue to be much more expensive than in the past."

  4. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #4

    I understand that paradox... (response to Martin)
    I fully understand the need to get off the fossil-fuel habit, but sudden shrinkage of the supply with commensurate hoarding by exporters and hyper-ballistic price volatility would impede the build-out of the greener energy options by making everything more expensive. Until the build-out is well under way, it's better if the price of oil is relatively stable, even if it's higher than traditionally.

    What's needed more than a bigger supply or higher pumping rate is a real national (and worldwide) PLAN for getting the transportation sector off oil, which is neither cheap nor easy, with no "one size fits all" solutions apparent at any price.

    I find Tom Murhpy's analysis of both peak oil and the scary economics on on the down slope pretty cogent:

    So for the time being I see the short-term higher availability of oil to be a good thing in the face of rising world demand. Oil demand has probably already peaked in the US, but turning around rising demand in Asia in under 3 decades doesn't seem likely, even if increasing price & price volatility lowers the slope.

    I worry more about the vast amounts of coal becoming an ultimate climate-killer than the size of the oil reserve or the rate at which oil is being used. There is a lot more readily unlocked carbon currently sequestered as coal than there is in oil, and the rate of carbon emissions from coal much higher too. But rates matter- slowing the consumption of both will be important for constraining climate change.

  5. Brent_Eubanks | | #5

    Not so fast...
    I posted this to the EBN blog article on the same topic, but the discussion here seems to be more lively, so I shall repost...

    The appropriateness of your article title depends greatly on what you mean by "Peak Oil". I will grant that these recent findings probably rule out the "doomer" scenario of rapid production collapse and oil running to hundreds or thousands of dollars per barrel.

    Thing is, that scenario (though common in some circles) was never really credible in the first place. Even with conventional oil, the amount that is "available" is in large part a funcition of price - as the price goes up, previously shut-in wells become economical again at the higher price point. The result is, as many expected, a bumpy plateau of production rather than a sharp cliff.

    (Note that production is only a function of economics to a degree. There are also geologic limits on the rate of production from a given well. It is possible to push the well to a higher rate of production, but this can actually damage the well structure such that, as the rate of extraction goes up, the total available for extraction actually goes down.)

    However, the fact that we have, apparently reached the peak (or, accurately, the plateau) of conventional oil production means that we have reached the end of cheap oil. And for practical purposes, this is the equivalent of most non-doomer "peak oil" scenarios.

    The problem is that, while the unconventional oil (and biofuels) are available, they are not cheap to produce. This is not surprising - we very naturally pumped all the easy stuff first, so what is left is hard to get at. And while technological advances may help control price escalation to an extent, I don't believe they will ever make the alternative liquid fuel sources cheap. Many of them (oil sands, kerogen shale even more so, and all biofuels which require distillation) are intrinsically energy intensive processes. They have poor enery return ratios, in many cases for reasons which are fundamental to the production process involved, and as such, they can never be cheap on a sustained basis because if the price drops too low they will no longer be economical to produce.

    So while it's true that peak oil is not likely to provide a quick end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, oil isn't going to get cheap again, ever. Which means that oil-dependent economies will remain under steady and increasing pressure - the price of oil touches on every part of the economy and so it acts in a way analogous to aerodynamic drag. The pressure at any one point may be low, but the cumulative effect is very significant.

    For more on this topic, I recommend writings by Robert Rapier (an engineer formerly of the oil world, now working on pyrolysis-based bioenergy) on the subject of what he calls "Peak Lite":

  6. Brent_Eubanks | | #6

    another article
    Maugheri's report is not mentioned by your article but has also gotten a lot of play by the "end of peak oil" folks, so this analysis is relevant:

  7. user-757117 | | #7

    Don't be hasty now...
    I'm glad the title of your blog post includes a question mark...

    The tone of your report sounds a little like what George Monbiot recently expressed in his article "We were wrong on peak oil. There's enough to fry us all".
    Monbiot appears to have been drawn in by the recent study by Leonardo Maugeri which I commented on in a recent blog of Martin's.

    I would be cautious about making predictions - the "real world" is far too complex a place for that kind of thing...
    I don't think there is any real evidence to support your claim that "the once all-important distinction between “conventional” and “unconventional” oil will break down over time".
    The difference between conventional and unconventional resources is fundamentally a difference in net energy return - this is a thermodynamic reality that technology can't mitigate (ie: technology isn't "free" in terms of capital or energy ependiture).

    We should not confuse "reserves" with "supply" - counting chickens before they hatch is never prudent and recent "upticks" in production do not necessarily imply a renaissance.

    It is very likely that peak oil is here right now, it just looks different than what many would have expected because it is complicated by unanticipated dynamics.
    It seems more and more likely as time goes by that our society will do whatever it takes to try to keep the energy flowing to meet demand under the present economic paradigm of growth at all costs...
    Needless to say, if this is our path, it will be disasterous for the climate.

  8. user-723121 | | #8

    Energy supply
    I read somewhere, what is left of the world's energy supply is nowhere near enough to generate the commerce to pay off all of the accumulated debt. This is when reality sinks in, we really have not accomplished much with all of the cheap energy that has been available to us.

  9. wjrobinson | | #9

    Peak oil is not peak energy.
    Peak oil is not peak energy. There are thousands if years of energy sources left even with just today's tech.

  10. Brent_Eubanks | | #10

    response to aj builder
    Yes, you are correct. The sun will continue to shine for thousands of years, and (due to the way the resources extract rates decay) there will always be a little bit of oil and gas available. However, that does not mean that we have an unlimited, or even long-term supply of high quality, high density energy. We're just about at the end of that particular endowment.

    The two critical factors here are energy density (joules/kg or joules/m^3) and energy return ratio (how much energy one must invest to harvest energy, vs. the amount of energy you get back out).

    For energy density, there is nothing in the natural world or on the technological horizon that can beat the energy density, transportability, and convenience of oil.

    As for energy return ratio: at the start of the oil age, it was about 100:1. Now it's about 20:1 from conventional wells, 10:1 or less from "unconventional" oil.

    Polysilicon solar PV is about 5:1 integrated over the equipment lifetime. Wind is about 10:1. These are decent, but not great, ERRs. More to the point, they produce electricity, not a storable liquid fuel.
    Non-fossil sources of liquid fuel tend to have lousy energy return ratios. Corn ethanol is somewhere between 0.8 (i.e. a net energy loser) and 1.2 (a small net energy gain). (People argue about the 0.8 vs 1.2 value vehemently, but it's a waste of time. Even 1.2 energy return isn't enough to run a prosperous technological civilization: you would spend all your time and energy trying to obtain enough surplus energy to do anything else other than harvest energy.) Sugarcane ethanol is better, maybe 4-5:1 but is geographically limited. Biodiesel from oil palms is 2-3:1 (but produces rainforest destruction). None of the "next generation" biofuels have a credible return ratio yet, because none of them are in large-scale production.

  11. wjrobinson | | #11

    Brent you left out all future
    Brent, tech is going to always keep us in energy. Exponential knowledge is at Moors law pace, population is not. Tech wins. It's simple really. Same for pollution. Pollution paces population.

  12. Brent_Eubanks | | #12

    Are you, by any chance,


    Are you, by any chance, an engineer? Have you studied alternative energy technologies in depth? What exactly do you think we have in the pipeline (as it were) that is going to save our irresponsible selves? Can you explain how your purported technological solution is going to circumvent the issues of energy density and energy return ratio which I outlined at length?

    If you project the future based on the last hundred years of human history only, then the arc of progress does look pretty rosy. But if you back up and consider the full historical context of human civilization, then the period since the Industrial Revolution starts to look a lot more like a historical blip than a historical precedent. And it's absolutely clear that that period of progress was possible only because of access to large quantities of cheap energy. Until that time, essentially all energy used by human societies everywhere was current solar income (which is essentially infinite in quantity, but is diffuse). The advent of practical energy engines changed that equation, by allowing us to tap a vast source of ancient, concentrated solar energy. As those resources become increasingly marginal, what do you think will replace them? Hope and good intentions?

    Please spare us the unsubstantiated technological cornucopianism until you are able to support your argument with something other than raw assertions. As one of the people who's job it is to develop technological solutions to our problems, I am thoroughly sick of listening to people (who generally have little in the way of technical qualification) blithely declare that technology will solve all our problems. I wrestle that bear every day, and I'm here to tell you: it's ain't that simple, and the prognosis is not nearly as rosy as you would like to believe.

  13. wjrobinson | | #13

    Brent, I am posting from the
    Brent, I am posting from the latest smart phone. My first engineering class in computers ... Sigma 9 and punch cards.

    There are breakthroughs in battery energy density that are astounding if one were to think tomorrow will be as today. Same for reactor designs which you didn't even mention.

    Leave out what is coming and think population is ever to be exponential and of course you would think we are doomed.

    Nano everything Alone is reducing energy demand. Even all our homes today use less E. My own electric use is down over the decades. Even the dollar amount is down while the cost per KWH has risen.

    I firmly believe energy is to be ample forever.

    The struggle between good and evil and dealing with ever cascading expontials and the bubbles involved along with the drama of nature... That's living today and forever IMO.

  14. Brent_Eubanks | | #14

    Whee, ponies and unicorns and fairy dust for everyone!
    If you review the history of technology, you will see that not-yet-here technologies always look better than here-now technologies because the benefits are easier to anticipate than the shortfalls, complications, and drawbacks.

    This is not to say that technology is bad or useless. It is both good and essential. But it does not and cannot free us from the fundamental constraints that nature places on all living things. It can, at best, allow us to push those boundaries further away, to stretch them. If you consider only the recent historical context, that looks like we've escaped but we have not. We have merely delayed the day of reckoning.

    I never at any point suggested that population will continue to grow forever. That is obviously unsustainable, but is also not the immediate problem. I'm not sure why you think I said that. The immediate problem is an economic system that requires continuous growth without limit, but that's a whole other conversation.

  15. wjrobinson | | #15

    Our last paragraphs show
    Our last paragraphs show signs of some agreement. But Brent, really, nuclear tech and so much more is coming along well and can jump in as fossil fizzles. Peak Oil delayed is good and is tied into price as a built in governor. And,,, all will be fine the sky is not falling.

    Google...The Panic Over Fukushima 1-200 cancer deaths from radiation expected, 4400 normal cancer, 15,000 from the wave. Go nuclear. Go thorium. Go breeder prism reactors. Go Gates and all. Innovation, risk takers, and of course engineers.

  16. user-1119494 | | #16

    Sorry, Brent: aj is right..
    According to brilliant economists the only thing that matters is our resourcefulness. Further, as we gain in technology, we will have less and less need of any concentrated natural resources since we will have the technology to extract what we need from the diffuse resources available anywhere. Not only that, but humans will do the right thing as long as markets are allowed to give their signals and people can respond freely. This is why human history is, essentially, a perfect upward exponential curve without the collapses and setbacks you naysayers would predict. The Roman Empire, Rapa Nui, Dark Ages, etc are simply exceptions that prove the rule.

    By the way, that saying is a mistranslation; the correct one is "the exception tests the rule". Why do people repeat things that make no sense?

  17. wjrobinson | | #17

    Exponentials + governors=
    Exponentials + governors= stability

    Tear down your lawnmower engine, or push on the governor to see it in action. The governor matches the run away rpm to the workload.

    There is no need for a rice field destroying black rat fourth wave, and its uncontrolled ex- and im- ...plosions. Just enough governess and balance is. (Interesting PBS subject)

    Some good governess is essential to smooth natures and man's roller coastering. Not lots, but some, and with adjustments as the times, they are always a changin.

  18. Brent_Eubanks | | #18

    Dustin, that is a great
    Dustin, that is a great parody of neoclassical free-market ideology. I almost can't tell that you're joking.

    You are joking, right?

    You do realize that 99% of modern economists make at least two fundamental errors, right? They assume the natural ecology is a subset of the human economy, when it is obvious by inspection that the relationship is the other way around. They also assume that growth without limit is possible in a finite world, which again should be obviously wrong by inspection.

    I assume that the reason that these blantant, serious errors persist is that everyone (including the economists) talk about their conclusions, and no one really questions (or even articulates) their assumptions. For economic theory grounded in reality, check out Herman Daly and the steady state economy crowd.

  19. Grumpa Gary | | #19

    a fine debate!
    I'd say neither Dustin nor AJ are joking, Brent. And the above is a great encapsulation of the two sides forming - or rather, growing farther apart - in debates about climate change around the world. I will throw some stuff into the mix that I think may be getting lost.

    1. Apart from greenhouse gasses, what other pollutants are we humans creating? How many of them are petroleum-based? Where do they fit into this "free market" that economists talk about?

    2. We currently possess lots of technology to solve big problems. Look at the articles on this website. But why do green building projects account for less than 10% (to be safe) of the total building projects in North America? And don't tell me because they cost too much. That would be a silly over-simplification.

    3. AJ - have you ever looked into the materials and life-cycle of that smart phone of yours? Who made it? How much were they paid? Why? Are there any toxins in it? Where did they come from? Where do millions (billions?) of phones and their toxins go when we throw them 'away'? Technology invariably has drawbacks that are rarely immediately apparent.

    4. Brent - I suspect society and nature are one now. It's a dialectical relationship: we create our environment as it creates us. There are even convincing arguments about social aspects of 'natural' disasters: it's always the poor folks who suffer most. Think Katrina and sub-Saharan Africa. I am not confident that 'the market' or technology will cure droughts and hurricanes that are happening now.

    5. Lastly, climate change and sustainability are not about spotted owls and tree frogs. When we talk about climate change, we are actually talking about the very real danger that we are making this planet uninhabitable for humans. Alex mentions food in his article. That is just the start. Just for a giggle, google arctic methane.

    In this context, the peak oil debate is moot. The debate should be about whether we humans are too myopic to persist.

  20. user-757117 | | #20

    Response to Gary
    I agree with you that climate change is probably the biggest issue humans have to face, but I disagree that the "peak oil" debate is moot.
    The reason being is that if we are to believe that there is still something that can be done to at least reduce the impact that climate change will have, then we must strive to promote understanding of how energy use and the economy ("peak oil" being inextricably linked to the economy) are related to climate change (climate change being a sum of many unintended consequences of our economic paradigm).

    The dynamics between constrained enabling resources (like oil, but not just oil) and the economy will have (already are having) far reaching effects - socially, politically, financially, environmentally, etc.
    Without understanding what these effects might be and how they might also have "knock-on" effects of their own, it will be impossible to mount any kind of coherent response to climate change.

    All this being said, I think your point may still be valid in the sense that it may already be too late to mount a coherent response to climate change - ie we're already too far behind the curve.

    There was recently a powerful summer storm system that passed through the arctic.
    It was unusual in its timing - normally arctic depressions are more a feature of winter weather - but also in its strength (barometric pressure reached a low of 963hPa/28.44"Hg - practically a hurricane!).
    The arctic ice pack this year had already been set to break all kinds of records in terms of ice loss, and then this storm appears and does all kinds of interesting and worrying things to the already weakend ice pack.
    It seems likely that the unusual nature of this storm is related to the diminished nature of the ice pack - ie more open water means lower albedo (more absorbtion of solar radiation), more latent heat from evaporation, more available energy...
    Less ice also means more methane off-gassing from shallow waters...

    It is impossible to say for sure which way things will go, but if this is the trend (ie accelerating warming with cascading effects) then we may see a state change in the climate system sooner than we think.
    It's possible there might even be a return to the age of bacteria.

    But anyways, I digress.
    Thanks for contributiong to the debate ;-)

  21. Brent_Eubanks | | #21

    Gary, I absolutely agree with
    Gary, I absolutely agree with all your points. And I would go further to say that if we were faced with any one of the challenges in question, I would not really be worried about humanity's future. But in addition to peak oil and climate change, we are also facing declines and/or overshoot in fresh water, soil, and fisheries. As well as (in this country at least) infrastructure deterioration which I can only attribute to extreme short-sightedness on the part of our political leadership.
    And the kicker is, all these issues are related. Water and energy are strongly coupled in many parts of the country. Soil and climate change similarly interact. Energy and infrastructure are tightly coupled, obviously. And they all relate to our ability to produce food, which is very much in peril in the coming decades.
    Part of the problem is that most efforts to address these issues do so in isolation, with a single focus problem, but most of the real solutions (i.e. that don't make some other issue worse) require embracing the interconnected nature of the problem. I think that the peak oil discussion is still relevant for this reason.

    It’s relevant for another reason as well: the various perspectives on peak oil, particularly the techno-cornucopian responses seen in this discussion, reflect societal attitudes and beliefs which are very pertinent to the broader range of problems. Specifically, the cornucopian position reflects a belief that we are somehow entitled to keep using energy the way we have historically, and that reality (either nature or technology) will necessarily adapt itself to satisfy our desires.
    Also, considering the damage that energy extraction does to the natural world (even historically, when extraction was relatively easy; much more so now, with harder-to-reach fuels) I think the cornucopian attitude also reflects a deeply-held but perhaps unconscious sense of entitlement: the idea that we humans are the center of existence, the epitome of evolution, and have the right to visit destruction on any and all other life in an effort to gratify ourselves. (Along with this, the belief that somehow we will escape from the consequences of destroying our planetary life support system.)
    This, then, points to the real issue underlying all these discussions. We will never effectively address these issues while hewing to these terribly destructive and provably false positions. Conversely, if we could collectively get over ourselves and accept that we are but one strand (albeit a rather unusual one) in the web of life, we could solve all of these problems relatively easily, in a matter of decades, with the technology we already possess.

    To the extent that the future of humanity is one of misery and poverty, it will be because we chose that path, by a staunch refusal to accept the reality of natural limits.

  22. wjrobinson | | #22

    What a bunch of back looking historical trend line extending hoo haa.

    techno-cornucopianist- properly defined. (First and foremost today is not your Grandma's world. And tomorrow will not be just and "extension of todays trends". I hear some applause out there somewhere, from all the innovators and mad wild venture capitalists, Thank you, thank you...) My point is being missed or avoided by the doom and gloom is soon of you all. I am born into the mico processor age, the age of both research into the mico and nano world and finally the age of what the heck to do with all this amazing knowledge and research. The time it takes to completely change the entire make up of this planet is exponentially shrinking. The accumulation of knowledge is reaping rewards and of course risks faster and faster and faster. We lived in caves for eons. We started planting crops and that has lasted for a few thousand years. Then industry... hundreds.. then fossil fuels, oil etc... decades... now micro processors... years... now Iphones.... weeks... nano everything... they just in the lab doubled the capacity of batteries, they have made batteries for autos in the lab that charge in a minute.

    If you think tomorrow is going to be the same as ten years ago. Really?

    I fully believe that our venture capitalists, our risk taking problem loving to solve types and innovators will tackle lots of what scares you all. Steve Jobs and Einstein have come and gone, but there are plenty more here now and being born every day.

    Think about this... When the going gets worth the effort, we get going. One entire Liberty class ship was launched every single day for a while during WWII.

    If the day comes when we have to ask Carrier Corp to refreeze the Artic, I bet they have it frozen right on schedule.

    Yes... we will need the proper shove to get at any one problemo... but when that shove comes... we will have the muscle power.

    The challenge, is going to continue IMO to be doable.

    And as to economy... and dwindle this and dwindle that... It is changing. Economy is becoming efficient to the point of NOT using resources. Facebook. How many trees are cut down to make up the economy of Facebook? The Adirondacks were stripped of trees by 1900. Today? We have so many trees, come take all you want. All our mountains are forested.

    Just a few thoughts... I do like what yaa have to say though.

  23. Grumpa Gary | | #23

    how about the "unconverted"?
    Glad you are still here, AJ. Let me get back to Brent and Lucas first.

    Oh boy! The debate about human impacts on the environment gets thicker and denser and more complex all the time, and there is no way the average voter or consumer (let's restrict this to our privileged, western industrialized countries) can keep up.

    Assuming that we are faced with global energy and climate change "challenges", let's return to the first post in this thread. David Meiland said "it is time to stop blaming energy companies and politicians for this, and look at ourselves." I am going to look at myself and role-play a bit.

    I live in rural Canada. I just drove my pick-up 5ks up to a nearby lake to watch the sunset and throw a stick for our Lab. That was an A+ sunset. I didn't see any storms or droughts or disasters. My little part of the world was/is calm, green and perfect.

    I am a good guy, I recycle and compost, and it's all I can do to pay the mortgage and keep groceries in the fridge, and I'm frankly a bit tired of this sustainability stuff. Yeah, we had a dry summer, so what? We had dry summers before. When you, Lucas, suggest it may be "too late" to avert catastrophic climate change, it is way outside of my purview. And Brent, if you want to add fish and soil and sub-Saharan Africa to greenhouse gasses - whoops! Time for a beer! That stuff is just too big for me.

    Peak oil means absolutely nothing to me until the price at the pump hits $2 a litre. Then I will buy a smaller pick-up.

    Now tell me in a language I can understand why I should change my behaviour.

    This is MY dilemma as an academic and builder.

    AJ - Man, I envy your optimism! You are breath of fresh air (and entertaining too!). But you did not answer any of the challenges I put to you. Your new phone is poisoning people on the other side of the world and your old phone ditto. Petroleum-based toxins are in your blood and mine, and what on God's green earth is "normal cancer"? (Besides an epidemic linked to petrochemicals, and a huge, insanely profitable multinational business.)

    Like you said, we already possess the tech to solve energy and ghg challenges, and I agree with you that tech is advancing at a dizzying pace. So why do we silly humans continue to foul our nest? What is your problem-loving venture capitalist doing to solve the unequal distribution of costs and consequences of environmental degradation? They will need to solve the inverse relationship between profit and community - ones and zeros vs everything in between that makes us human.

    I fear that the solution has little to do with technology and/or conventional economics.

  24. wjrobinson | | #24

    Enjoy the change.... A novel
    Enjoy the change.... A novel to delight the doom or bloom crowd.

    "In some ways, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a cozy sort of post-apocalyptic novel. As the novel begins, the main character has a pretty comfortable life, with plenty of supplies and a safe place to sleep. He has a pet dog and a buddy who helps keep him safe from the roving bands of desperate people willing to kill for food. And yet, the first half of The Dog Stars makes a persuasive case that the most horrifying fate after the collapse of civilization might actually be having a modicum of comfort — because of the things you'd have to do to preserve it."

    As to my tiny everything cell. It replaces hundreds of pounds of purchases of days just decades ago. And now we purchase over the internet apps and social media. So the tiny cell is part of the tech solution, NOT part of the problem. The Red Cross has an app that replaces your emergency radio and flashlight.

    The future is resource-full... Not the other way around. Cheer up.

  25. user-757117 | | #25

    Response to Gary
    I think it is important for me to first state that even though "it may already be too late", I don't view this as an excuse for apathy on the issue.

    Now tell me in a language I can understand why I should change my behaviour.

    Well, to be honest, I'm not sure that's something that I can really do...
    The very nature of the climate change predicament is complexity, so an explaination of the connection between an individual and that predicament is not something that is easily communicated.
    All you can do is put the facts "out there", let people decide for themselves and hope for the best.

    The problem though is that the facts aren't what's "out there"...
    Independant, objective and fact-checked journalism is an extremely rare bird these days.
    So, maybe you can tell me how people - as preoccupied with their own lives as they may be - can be expected to find time to cut through the white noise and get at the truth themselves...

    If it isn't already too late, it won't be that much longer before it's the events of our time that determine our future - instead of us.

  26. Brent_Eubanks | | #26

    AJ is expressing the
    AJ is expressing the technocornucopian position perfectly: All this technology is amazing (i.e. I don't understand it) and changing so fast (i.e. I can't update my understanding quickly enough to stay current) so I can be totally confident it will provide whatever we need in order that I can continue to live the lifestyle to which I am accustomed.
    It's a very appealing position. It's just not very convincing.

  27. wjrobinson | | #27

    Brent, it is hard to
    Brent, it is hard to "connect" to the rapid pace of nano tech. visit a. research lab and modern robot factory. seeing progress first hand will help you look to the bright future.Buy an inexpensive microscope, go to Radio Shack, buy an clock chip microprocessor, split it, and peer in amazement at the circuits.

    Computers started out at over 18 volts, then much less, 12,9,5.6,3.4 and now 1.3V and less, Projects that do not need charging... many devices already.

    Imagine the entire internet, us, the cloud,using no fossil fuel to run.

    When you were young you had imagination. You still do grasshoppers.

  28. Brent_Eubanks | | #28

    To your point about


    To your point about communicating these issues to the layperson: I don't think you really can, at least in the short term. But I'm not sure that doing so is the most relevant short term issue, either.

    Really understanding the issues around sustainability and human impact requires both what I call industrial literacy (i.e. knowing where your water, power, and gadgets come from) and also ecological literacy (understanding basic concepts like food webs, apex predators, succession, keystone species, etc). These forms of literacy are almost non-existent in our culture currently. Cultivating them is a very worthwhile goal, but it is a long-term goal. You have to teach these ideas to children - most adults are too set in their ways to adjust, in my experience.

    On the other hand, I think that the real challenge is around infrastructure and industrial processes. As it stands now, even the most knowledgeable person can do relatively little to reduce their impact beyond a certain level, unless they are prepared to go full-on mountain man and basically check out of modern society (not a path I endorse, BTW; pure harm minimization is not a desirable goal). On the other hand, even the most ignorant person can do relatively little damage except as their actions are amplified through the industrialized production and transport system. So, I think, we have to educate the leaders and decisionmakers, and we need to change the infrastructure and the assumptions which are embedded in it. Along the way, we should take every opportunity to educate laypeople, but I don't know that that should be the primary focus of our efforts.

  29. wjrobinson | | #29

    Brent, most of us don't
    Brent, most of us don't really know a damn thing. Can you create iron or bronze metal? How about nanocrystalline alloys?

    It's ok for many of us to be less involved in the actual research and understanding of all.

    Venture capitalists are funding and designing and understanding our today and our tomorrow.

    And thankfully for that. The masses are mostly just along for the ride, like beehives, a queen and a thousand drones.

  30. wjrobinson | | #30

    I don't get the glass is
    I don't get the glass is going to run empty in 4 days vibe.

    Try listing all that is amazing and recently new. IE, the news today, 24/7 weather channel, hurricane prepping for a week! If I start adding to this the list would be endless.

    Your clocks froze back in 1999. Get new clocks that tick into the exciting future. If you want to mess with the grandkids keep an old rotary phone around to amaze them and reminisce with.

  31. Brent_Eubanks | | #31

    AJ: the thing you need to
    AJ: the thing you need to understand is that all this wonderfulness has been produced by deficit spending of the ecology. We are liquidating natural capital and the wealth of the next generation for the sake of profits and convenience today. Bill McDonough calls it "intergenerational remote tyranny" and he is correct: it is the ultimate form of taxation without representation, because we are enriching ourselves by impoverishing the future. (We are also, incidentally, impoverishing a large fraction of the rest of the world for the same purpose, a fact which you seem to simply refuse to acknowledge despite the fact that it has been raised repeatedly in this thread.)

    Don't believe me? Go talk to an ecologist. Educate yourself about hydrology, and the drawdown of the Ogallala aquifer which supplies irrigation for America's breadbasket. Learn about eutrophication of waterways, and the Gulf dead zone. Understand the concept of Energy Return on Energy Invested, and ponder the consequences of a declining EROEI (from 100:1 a century ago, to 10:1 and falling now).

    In other words, go learn something before sharing your opinion - if you dare. Ignorance is the only thing that protects your optimism.

  32. Grumpa Gary | | #32

    Ha ha! A rotary phone! I can
    Ha ha! A rotary phone! I can remember them! Bakelite plastic, right? Almost indestructible stuff.

    My little role play was me as joe consumer. One of 350 million in North America, soon to be joined by another two BILLION in China and India. Like leaving one light on - like a single drone - I have negligible impact. Together though? - yikes! Those tiny drones heat the hive on cold nights.

    Imagine another two BILLION cell phones. How many of those tons of rare earth metals, batteries and petrochemicals will be re-used?

    AJ - cell phones are more versatile and efficient AND there are a lot more of them every day. Growing impact and pollution. And they certainly do not reduce consumer products or consumption. Not sure where you got that nugget.

    I will grant that, thanks in large part to technology, it looks like we are a healthier, more literate, more peaceful, more productive species than at any other time in history. And now we even have a hurricane channel which is also a good thing because it will warn us to take cover as anthropogenic impacts from all this productivity are making storms stronger. We are smart and short-term productive but negligent about the consequences.

    You still have not answered my challenges AJ. You are innovative and fun to read but you are skirting the very real stuff in front of your face. This conversation began with Alex's article about the peak oil debate and climate change. The unassailable fact is that we tech-infused humans are cranking enough greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere to dramatically change the weather on earth, and, I might add, enough pollutants to create diseases like cancer, both predictable reactions by an ecosystem to an organism that doesn't fit.

    I keep insisting that these issues are much much bigger than technology. I already said we have lots of green building technology but most builders do not use it. Why? Don't dance around this again AJ or I will lose interest.

    Lucas - forgive me if I implied somehow you were apathetic. You would not be on here if you were! And the "white noise" is exactly the problem with which I struggle. I want to be a "translator" but who is responsible for sifting and publicizing so that two billion joe consumers get the message? Do we wait for joe's house to get trashed in a storm? This is a huge issue for me. Everything these days is about spin - about how people create and transmit messages. And Brent - you know AJ's spin is convincing and appealing. It's the same made-for-TV (or 'smart' phones?) spin that is now embedded in the foundation of western political economy. Entrenched, pervasive, consistent and dangerous to dismiss. Just sayin'.

  33. wjrobinson | | #33

    Brent, we're talking past
    Brent, we're talking past each other. My history, for decades I have followed both all the enviromental issues you mention and way way more and have been very interested in moving toward less use of fossil, and homes that are net zero or even net plus. In fact I love the ideas. I even think pushing toward individual and neighborhood and town independent sustainabiltiy is wonderful.

    Your side; water running out, nonsense, the world is awash in water. What is running down is convenient free water. What will happen? We already know what will happen. We will do what we already do, replace the free water with technology. The cost will rise some but also will create jobs and economy which we always need jobs and something to do so we don't sit around smoking whatever and stewing about the near end of the world. The rest of the resources... we will always be able to formulate and produce what less amounts of all that we will ever need. There are people way smarter than you and I already funding space mining. All of your scenarios rely on slow slow speeds of innovation and the non nano non future world of uses even for all that we already know let alone how much more will be known in only a year! Imagine, in a year the world's knowledge will grow as much as it did from 1900 back to the first tool made by cave dwellers. That my friend is not being understood by the doom group. The pace of knowledge is changing exponentially fast enough to deal with all of your issues. That's what I think.

    I am a believer in a fantastic future. My grandmother lived through amazing times too. During the depression if you told her we would have internets and lasers and nano tech and cell phones that slip in our pockets that are video phones giving free access to every single person on the planet... she would have laughed you out of the room.

    Think about all the tech that you are dismissing. Explain how you don't see 10 pound cell phones with 12 volt lead acid batteries are soon to be so easy to power and light that they may will end up in google glasses and never need charging. And because they are so small, the same cell phone will use one hundreth the resources of that the first cell phone used.

    How much resources does Facebook use? Of Skype? Meeting over Skype uses one thousandth the resources that flying to a meeting uses.

    Most people are so geared to the past to see tomorrow that it is just too hard to believe what I am saying. Brent, that may be you.

    My first computer used a thousand pounds of copper wire maybe, a Sigma 9. My cell must only use a ten thousanth of that.

    Some exponentials are good exponentials.

    Resources are to be here forever. Think about how thick the planet is. We just scratch at the surface right now. We haven't even dinged the Earth under the seas. Yes we pollute but then we figure it out and make good. Is Lake Erie still dead? No. And we are still moving forward.

    Move forward with me Brent. No need to get off the planet early. Enjoy the ride my friend. It's truly magic. I can't say much for after the ride is over. Dead is dead in book and less than living in a big way.

    For now the planet is crackin along just dandy. When the skiing craps out get on a surf board cause this world will still be just fine.

    Give me your list of problems that lead you to the end of the world. I'll start for you.

    Water- Solution- Nuclear desalination, look it up and check the cost, still almost free for gosh sakes.
    Your turn-

  34. wjrobinson | | #34

    Doing my best to answer, do the same for me...
    Gary start with this. If you are right then time to start the party because we will all be dead from a thousand of your scary scenarios. That's just nuts. Not gonna go that way. Your parents most assuredly thought they would be dead now from world nuclear annihilation. Didn't happen but many really thought it had to happen. 2000. Thousands thought technology would cascade us all to oblivion or back to the dark ages at the tick of a clock. Nope.

    Next section... time frames of exponential doubling rates...(time for whatever to double!)

    You just don't understand how some exponentials are being impacted by the latest exponentials. We have 18 month and shorter exponentials of good stuff (knowledge to battle your demons) going up against 70 year and 1000 year exponentials and 7 billion year time frames. The rabbits are racing the turtles, thats maybe worth being scared of. but I am not. Why? because the race doesn't have a finish line, it's an ongoing marathon with some sprints and rests and back tracking.

    We are not running out of rare metals. Silly talk. Scare mongering. Your grand kids will have cells that slow the use of the rare stuff to the point that supply will be limitless.

    You guys are like my friend that bought gold at $800 because gosh look at how it keeps going up and up and up, it's gonna be at thousands soon. Then he held it for a decade and sold it just before it finally turned and did it's latest dance. Think it's going to go up ten fold right now? Go ahead place your bets. It self governs price wise via supply and demand signals.

    Same with high gas prices, the prices at some point signals and the collapse hits.

    Look into exponentials and what happens to the end game of and the replacement of... and the speed of... all.

    Math is an amazing tool. You all are proving how well to use it with too many of my wonderful missing positive factors. Look at the positives for a day or two. They are there, everywhere.

    The sea rises., we create economy building homes farther inland. People die, morticians get work. That's life and life involves death and change either today or tomorrow.

    Make a mess, somebody gets a nice job... cleaning up the mess.

    Need water, a thousand guys and gals get to build a nuclear desalination plant. Three good things, jobs, economy and water, lots of water. build a Thorium or Prism reactor and bingo.. none of that nasty waste even to scare you all.

    Run out of rare metals, we will create replacements in the labs, and we still have lots of string and tin cans we could mine from our dumps.

    Too bad your world is ending according to you. Mine is fabulous and getting more so. Why did you pick your world. Come to mine be happy. Hammocks, surfboards, IPAs and sunsets just up the beach from the nuclear desalinator.

  35. Grumpa Gary | | #35

    oh man...where do I start...
    ...and the Gulf spill was a bonanza for fishermen because the oil companies spent millions on the cleanup, right? And cancer is a boon for the economy too, right?

    Economists need to learn how to subtract, dude.

    Now you and I are getting further apart. Sorry, AJ but I think that, in a way, you are evading responsibility, and that's what I have been trying to get at all along. If I can assume you are a green builder because you are on this forum, you are in a tiny minority in North America. You have once again skirted my question about why more PEOPLE (the caps are a hint) don't use readily available and wonderful (e.g. green building) technology. Why do we invest more on carcinogens than healthy communities?

    Enough of this. Nice to chat. I'm going to the lake with the dog and a six-pack.

  36. user-757117 | | #36

    Response to Gary
    If you're still "checking in"...
    I hope you have good luck in learning to be a "translator" - I think we need lots of them.

  37. Brent_Eubanks | | #37

    For the record

    I will grant that, thanks in large part to technology, it looks like we are a healthier, more literate, more peaceful, more productive species than at any other time in history.

    For the record, I agree. We are at in many ways at a better place as a species than we have ever been, at least during recorded history. We have even, to some extent, begun to cast off the tribal (racial, religious, etc) affiliations and rivalries that have dogged humanity since probably before we were human.
    What concerns me is not where we are, but where we are going. The future is impossible to predict, but it is possible to outline probabilities and deploy sane risk management/mitigation measures on that basis - something that we have entirely failed to do. Recent (~50 year) trends in energy, soil, freshwater, climate, biodiversity all point in roughly the same direction - and those trends constitute a direct threat to the continuation of a prosperous technological civilization. "Prosperous" is the key word here - we could absolutely maintain a sort of high tech industrial feudalism for at least several centuries on the resources we have, but it would be a miserable world for all but a ever-shrinking class of social elite. Not a win.

    And also for the record: I do believe that it is possible to build a prosperous, equitable high tech civilization for ourselves and future generations. We could have many of the services to which we are accustomed, if perhaps not in the way we are used to having it (e.g. PRT and better urban design, rather than cars; same benefit, very different footprint).

    However, I am equally convinced that technology alone cannot get us there. Our current civilization is "designed" (to use the term VERY loosely) with complete disregard for the natural systems in which we are embedded. That's a losing proposition - and no amount of technology can change that. Instead, the change has to come from a different set of priorities and values, which would then be expressed as a different approach to (among other things) the design of infrastructure.

    If we deploy our astounding technology from a place of humility, knowing that we are part of the fabric of life and we must respect that relationship, we can build heaven on earth, probably in less time than one might think. But if we continue to ride high on our technology, and believe that it can allow us to escape the laws of nature, we are equally capable of building a miserable future for ourselves and our descendants.

  38. Brent_Eubanks | | #38


    Economists need to learn how to subtract, dude.

    That, my friend, is a thing of beauty. You have distilled the core error of modern economics to a single sentence, and pithy to boot.

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