“To consume is glorious”

Read this excellent post for an eye-opening thesis: If the Chinese, in their ever-mounting prosperity, go on to mirror the US in terms of consumption of natural resources (especially oil) the result could be an earth sucked dry.

Don’t blame the Chinese; the US has always been first to gorge on the earth’s resources like there’s no tomorrow. Why shouldn’t China follow our glorious example?

The Discussion: 47 Comments

Good Lord, just because we in the US do it, that does not make it a smart or proper thing to do.

March 26, 2005 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

Of course not. My point is, it’s hard for us to point fingers at the Chinese for wanting resources to fuel their economy when we have led the way in unrestrained and often frivolous consumption, with the cavalier attitude that we can always find more somewhere, even if we have to dig pp the pristine Alaskan wilderness or declare a stupid war on an oil-producing nation. (If you remember the original Wolfowitz plan, we were going to be awash in oil months after the invasion, with all reconstruction paid for by oil sales! And I’m not drifting off-topic; our never-ending thirst for oil literally dictates our foreign policy. Whether that’s good or bad I’m not saying; just that when China follows our example, we’ll have no right to accuse them of greed or disrespect for the earth’s limited resources.))

March 26, 2005 @ 5:50 pm | Comment

Who exactly is pointing fingers saying the Chinese shouldn’t consume like us? If they want to do it then the market will dictate the price. If they consume like we do then prices will accommodate that increased demand. And then the US and China will realize ways to do without these commodities.

March 26, 2005 @ 6:02 pm | Comment

No one said anyone’s pointing fingers at the Chinese — hell, the problem as described in the article is a quarter of a century away! The whole article is based on the premise of the Chinese mirroring the example set by America, and I simply said we in the US can’t blame the Chinese if their needs tax the world’s resources, as our philosophy has always been “dig for more!”

Ideally, we’d have set an example, through aggressive conservation and exploration of alternative fuels. Then the article might have been about China following that pattern. Sorry, I didn’t mean to veer away from the CXhina story and focus on the US — but in my mind, it’s the whole “fuck the environment” attitude of our current administration that deprives us of the right to plead to China for moderation.

March 26, 2005 @ 6:08 pm | Comment

Will it be glorious for the citizens of China to have the physique of Michael Moore??

March 26, 2005 @ 6:45 pm | Comment

Richard’s point is the one I was trying to make as well – we in the United States can’t afford to continue our current patterns of consumption (and if you don’t think the rapidly approaching point of “peak oil” is a huge reason why we’re in Iraq, well…). I give the current Chinese government huge points for at least saying on paper that they are going to move to 10% renewable energy sources – whether they can translate these good intentions into action or not, they are at least acknowledging the scope of the problem and trying to put policies in place to mitigate the crisis (again, ON PAPER, the new emissions standards for cars sold in China are more stringent than cars sold in the US). It is absolutely shameful that the United States is not leading the way in conservation and alternative energy and that we have a regime in Washington whose solution is to go to war for oil and to and pillage the few pristine spaces we have left.

March 26, 2005 @ 7:05 pm | Comment

There’s a Canadian documentary called The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream. I recommend checking it out. It’s an examination of what would happen if and when Peak Oil does occur. Some experts believe it’s going to occur by 2010. Optimists believe it won’t happen until 2050. The suburbs in America and other parts of the Western world require a great deal of cheap plentiful energy to keep running. Our economy relies on oil and natural gas for transportation, fertilizers and pesticides to grow our crops, and a means for goods to be transported from other countries. If oil production starts to decline everything we do and live will have to change.

The film points out that our consumer lifestyle allows us to gobble resources like there’s no tomorrow. The American dream is having a suburban home with a white picket fence and a three-car garage and tons of electronic gadgets. For the last 50 years we’ve been living in a fantasy world. What’s going to happen when oil production declines and other countries demands keep on increasing? There’s a belief that the life we live is normal and right and our children are entitled to live exactly the same way. Will we elect politicians whose mandate is to procure oil resources by any means fair or foul?

Personally, I think the documentary is a little too pessimistic. There’s still the tar sands in Alberta though it’s very expensive to extract the oil. I think if we start conserving more and downsize our lifestyle we should be all right.

March 27, 2005 @ 7:38 am | Comment

In the 1970’s the average car used 10-15 mpg and oil changes were much more frequent.
Some “progress” has been made.
Is it Bush’s fault that some spoiled yuppie has to have a Ford Expedition to drive two miles to the local deli and then gets on TV COMPLAINING about the high price of gas?
Is that in the constuition that we have an inalienable right to cheap gas?
The government shouldn’t be daddy. Where is the PERSONAL repsonsibility.????

March 27, 2005 @ 8:57 am | Comment

This government actually encourages waste and the idea that the earth is there for us to plunder. Sure, there’s personal responsibility. Our government is supposed to set an example for that. Its energy policy was dictated by profit-thirsty energy companies with no input from those who believe in conservation or environmental soundness. It has done nothing to raise awareness of conservation, but instead is guided by the philosophy that the world is America’s oyster and if the well starts to run dry you can always dig another well, wherever you want whenever you want. Personal responsibility kicks in when people realize there is a serious problem. The government is supposed to lead this mentality, which is why we have ant-littering campaigns and conserve water campaigns and protect Social Security campaigns (even if, in the latter case, it’s founded on a lie). Instead of telling us to conserve, it tells us not to worry — we can dig up the Alaskan Wilderness.

March 27, 2005 @ 9:19 am | Comment

I am new to this blog, and not entirely familiar with its history. In fact, while intimately familiar with both Latin America and the Arabian Gulf (having lived in both Santiago and Dubai), I know next to nothing about China, and will be making my first visit in mid-April on business. That’s why I’m at this site…just doing some research to make me less ignorant.

One more caveat before I comment on this “finite resources” discussion. My personal political philosophies defy categorization. Perhaps you could simply say I am pro-feedom and recognize the important, but tenous and delicate interplay between the rights and needs of the community of the human species and the necessity for maintaining the absolute integrity of the individual human consciousness.

Quite an intro…so here goes with the specifics of my critique of the entire framework for this discussion about China and its use of resources.

The human species is a restless form of life, seeking to expand its influence and “control” over prevailing circumstances in ever-widening ripples of influence. The line between the illusion of control and actual control is not bright and distinct, however. While we have made great changes in our ability to control certain things, control of others remains elusive, and perhaps self-defeating. But, that said, humans strive for control of their circumstances. And that’s not a bad thing, believe me.

In my personal belief set, I want the simultaneous full embrace of and focus on every smidge of reality coupled with a complete detachment from that reality. I want both at the same time. Full engagement and full detachment. So, for me, much wisdom lies in the rejection of materialism, at least in spiritual terms. However, I also want to eat well, stay warm, enjoy pleasant and stimulating surroundings, and otherwise maintain my physical existance quite nicely thank-you. Simultaneous detachment and full and complete engagement. But that’s just me.

In fact, I would argue that my position is a fairly advanced form of human consciousness (and how very humble of me to say so!) Measuring things in strictly physical terms is as demeaning to the spirit as not also considering them in strictly spiritual terms.

But, here’s the rub. Human beings seek to do what works in the physical realm. This has compelled them to seek to discover causality. Fueled mainly by the so-called European enlightenment (with the drumbeat taken up by the entire species over time), as a species, we are fully enagaged at this point in history in discovering “what causes what” through a rigorous application of the empirical method. That is, we are applying this method to isolate variables and try to find those that are dependent and independent so that we may predict the outcomes of causes known as effects.

Everybody with me so far? Good.

Now globally, this process has been speeded up (catalyzed) by the interconnections between and among humans (telecommunications, internet, travel, media, etc). In fact, the spread of more, rather than less, successful behaviors will transform the species over time. All human beings are inherently intelligent and conscious. The genome knows no “race,” or ethnicity. This is biologic fact that we dispute at our peril. So the network effect is alive and well in our specieis.

Still with me? Good.

Now let’s get down to business. Why is it not important that at some point in the future, China uses the same per capita “resources” as the United States?

It is because resources are not finite. Not in any sense of the word that applies to human beings, that is. Now this is not to say that good stewardship of the planet is unnecessary. Not at all. Nor is it to say that consumption brings happiness or any of that claptrap. It is simply to say that people are always going to be driven to try to control their world to assure themselves and their progeny of what they perceive as “the good life.” You may not like this fact of human nature. But you can whine, complain, rant and rave, and it won’t make any meaningful difference.

Put in another way, humans will always find a way consistent with their needs, to use whatever they have at their disposal to cope with the demands of their bodies and their consciousness. It’s just that simple.

The apple is not “worth” anything to a human being until it is picked up and eaten, sold, used for its seeds or put to some other use. The apple, on an intrinsic basis, has no “value” as a human resource until a human puts energy into it to use it for a human prupose.

OK, let’s get more specific.

Oil and gas. By the time it “runs out,” there will be alternatives. The market, together with governments, will ensure this. Hydrogen, solar, whatever.

Metals. OK, recycling aside, there is no reason to believe the human speciaes will run out of metals. Will we have to mine less rich ore bodies. Yes. Will we have to recycle. Yes. So what?

Biomass. Timber, agriculture, etc. Come on. These resources can be managed. Anyone who has visited the crowded countries (I have only myself been to India, and not yet to China, as mentioned above) and compared these regions to, say, the Canadian west or the Argentinian pampas, or even vast stretches of the US, can’t help but notice that there is a lot of biomass-related opportunity for agricultural purposes.

Environmental degredation. Has anyone noticed that the richer societies have much better environmental circumstances? Water, air, etc. Wealth brings the ability to deal with these issues.

The only real capital is human capital. Ours is a restless species, and we’ll be just OK over time. The changes being wrought globally are more exciting now than in any other time in recorded human history. Interconnection among members of the species is as important as the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture. It is as critical as the development of written language. But it is happening so much more quickly than either of those momentous achievements. What a time to be alive and to marvel at the adaptability of our remarkable life-form.

I’m far more worried about our ability to cope with the coupling of governmental power with technology to limit human freedom.

Or, if you want to get really out there, then worry about the rise of silicon-based consciousness through an as-yet-not-mature network effect with our silicon-driven buddies with microprocessors. Issac Asimov and the laws of robotics, anyone?

Unfortunately, one really dangerous form of conservative (and there are many, many dangerous forms of conservatism out there) is the person who conceives of themselves as a progressive individual, but drives forward looking in the rear view mirror. Finite resouces, indeed…think about the shift in our world moving from whale oil for indooor lighting to where we are now with Greepeace and the environmental movement having largely preserved the whale species. Where there’s a whale there’s a way.

Quite a rant, huh? Hope it made you think.


March 27, 2005 @ 9:53 am | Comment

I won’t disagree with the thrust of your argument, that we’ll always come up with new solutions. The problem is, we are tied to oil now and we will not be released from its yoke for many, many years to come, even generations. And this dependence started in the early 1900s, nearly a centruy ago, with demand only growing greater. The doomsday scenario described in the article is only 25 years away. That is not nearly enough time for the US (let alone the entire world!) to move to fuel-cell-driven cars or for industry to wean itself off of oil, which will demand infrastructure costs on a level we don’t even want to contemplate. And this is presuming the government goes all-out in support of these new technologies with tax breaks and incentives. Sadly, when Cheney convened his secretive, self-serving energy summit, all the recommendations were for backward-looking solutions, such as opening the ANWR and cutting environmental standards.

The world was never, ever, ever held hostage by whale oil or windmills the way we are today held hostage by oil. There is simply no comparison. Breaking away will literally take generations. That said, we will do it; man has always come around and embraced new solutions and saved his own neck. But in the case of oil, we simply cannot free ourselves in one fell swoop, not with the billions of cars and motorcycles and lawnmowers and factories and motorboats and just aout everything else on the planet that moves living off of oil. Oil is the lifeblood of the entire global marketplace. There is not enough money to invest or new technology to implement that can turn that around in 25 years. So I think this is a problem we shouldn’t take lightly, with the assumption that human ingenuity will work it out simply because that formula has worked in the past.

March 27, 2005 @ 10:37 am | Comment

Richard, you’ve made any arguments I would make so I’ll content myself with a strong “second that” and also add that the environmental damage we do while extracting that last drop of oil will be very expensive and hard to fix.

And yes, personal responsibility is extremely important. I don’t know why more people aren’t making more responsible choices; it frustrates and angers me. But our leadership has a responsibility to, well, LEAD. And can certainly create incentives that would steer people in a more environmentally responsible direction, as it were…

March 27, 2005 @ 11:56 am | Comment

And if they lead us over a cliff like the proverbial lemmings???
In Califonia a school decided that rain water was being wasted (it seems that over 80 per cent of rainwater goes into the ocean) and built water cisterns to conserve water.!!!! Just think if this was common practice or the more prolificgate use of solar energy sources, especially in the soutwest?
Should we sit on our hands and wait for the all kn owing government to give us a incentive to do the right thing?/
What kind of thinking is that?
By the way, you Bill Clinton fans may remember thats he was famous or infamous, for “leading” by the polling data.

March 27, 2005 @ 2:39 pm | Comment

Um, no. We shouldn’t sit on our hands. No one is saying that. I would hope everyone takes responsibility on an individual level and does what he or she can. But if you’re arguing that there’s no legitimate role for government in this (and truthfully I’m not sure what you are arguing), sorry, we fundamentally disagree on the role of government. To my way of thinking, government is supposed to represent us as an expression of our common ground, common purpose and common good. Notice the “us” in this equation. “Of the people, by the people and for the people,” you know?

March 27, 2005 @ 4:20 pm | Comment

RMH, Bush is even more famous for leading by poll data. He flip-flopped on his steel tariffs, on not having Condi testify in front of the 911 commission, on his infamous Social Security non-plan (now he’s saying he’ll consider raising payroll taxes — full-circle flip flop after his support plunged!!), and if you haven’t noticed, he’s backed down totally from his macho stand on poor Terry Schiavo after it accelerated his plunging popularity. Anyway, as Lisa said, no one’s advocating sitting on one’s hands. It’s simply fundamental: laws are made that lead to changes only when government takes the lead and pushes for them. If the government is silent on conservation and sustainable development and saving the environment — well, that may be okay with you. I expect something more from my government, like watching out for the citizens whose taxes pay their fat salaries.

March 27, 2005 @ 4:48 pm | Comment

The was an interesting interview on TV last week with the man who wrote “Ecotopia’ (?) about 30 years ago, suggesting Northern Cal, Oregon and Washington breakaway from the United States to form a new country based on environmental needs and principles. Apparently there is a movement toward that end. I think the author was suggesting that the superregional nation is no longer a useful model and suggested smaller, cohesive regions should become the nation/state model going ahead.

March 27, 2005 @ 6:01 pm | Comment

There is not enough money to invest or new technology to implement that can turn that around in 25 years. So I think this is a problem we shouldn’t take lightly, with the assumption that human ingenuity will work it out simply because that formula has worked in the past.

This statement has a couple of bold assumptions, and most of the argument above leaves out some important points. One commenter or two did bring up market forces as a motivator, but there’s much more to it. Long before oil “runs out” it’s going to become very very expensive (I just knew someone was going to throw in the “peak oil” conspiracy any day, but it’s based on really dumb economic assumptions). There are already millions of solar water heaters, people are living happily in the Earthships outside Taos (of course they have to drive 40 miles to civilization–so far), fuel-cell research is proceeding feverishly, and the sales of hybrid cars are zooming. That’s with gasoline at $2.00 a gallon.

Not to be a pollyanna–there will always be dramatic problems–but long, long, long before the apocalypse, we’ll see more hybrid cars and solar heating, hydrogen cars, telecommuting, nuclear generated electricity and so on. There will still be a few loons driving SUVs around, paying $25.00/gallon for gas, and there will magically be adequate oil reserves–at $400 per barrel. And the air will be much cleaner for the simple reason that burning carbon is too expensive. Don’t underestimate enginuity.

March 28, 2005 @ 12:05 am | Comment

Sorry, Richard, I guess I didn’t close my Bold tag; looks funny.

March 28, 2005 @ 12:07 am | Comment

Geez. Freudian slip thinking about cars and engines.
“enginuity” sb ingenuity.

More coffee please, and I promise to go away.

March 28, 2005 @ 12:10 am | Comment

it’s based on really dumb economic assumptions

No, it’s based on really sound scientific assumptions. And since when is peak oil a “conspiracy” anyway? Is there a sinister cabal of enviro-nazis hidden in a bunker under Berkeley that’s responsible for the constantly decreasing rate of new oil discoveries?

People who say, “so what? I’ll just get a Prius” conveniently ignore the fact that cheap, plentiful oil affects much more than their ability to drive their SUVs to Wal*Mart. It also affects the price and availability of every single thing inside Wal*Mart. When oil costs $400 a barrel, people will suddenly realize this — and of course it’ll be too late to do much about it.

When the supply of a commodity is finite, you have to reduce demand. But the current régime in Washington has done nothing — less than nothing — in that regard.

March 28, 2005 @ 2:02 am | Comment

and, you know, global warming….

Just thought I’d throw that in…

March 28, 2005 @ 2:05 am | Comment

But Lisa, global warming is a myth! And besides, it’s not caused by vehicle or factory emissions — it’s caused by massive emissions of hot air from UN environmental conferences!

Or so goes the standard denialist line, anyway.

March 28, 2005 @ 2:19 am | Comment

Oh, and all this time I thought it was caused by trees….

That’s a really old reference from the Reagan days, for those who weren’t around then…

March 28, 2005 @ 2:54 am | Comment

Yes, and ketchup is a vegetable and Grenada is a big threat to the Homeland (oops, we weren’t calling it the Homeland then).

Denialists are fond of pointing out that volcanoes, sea spray, etc., contribute far more CO2 to the atmosphere than human activity does. But that’s not the point. If a CO2 concentration of x parts per million (ppm) is associated with the climate we have now, or the climate we had until 30-50 years ago, then it stands to reason that a concentration of x+20% (or 30% or 40%) will cause disruptions to the climate.

To which they inevitably respond: It snowed in South Carolina last winter! So there’s no such thing as global warming! Ha ha ha! Stoopid enviro-nazis!!

It’s enough to make me wonder if there isn’t a sinister ulterior motive behind the relentless right-wing jihad against science education. But I think I’ve gone waaaay off-topic now.

March 28, 2005 @ 3:14 am | Comment

Yes, of course it’s true that there will be massive dislocations as various “finite” resources get “used” up. So what? What’s the big deal? Get used to it. Just because we now base our entire economic lives on oil and gas does not mean we won’t be able to shift when and as needed. And, no, this is not something that will come out of the sky like a thunderbolt. There’s probably enough oil gas and coal for a couple of centuries, at least, even with China and India (don’t forget India) growing like flopsy. Anyone who says differently is ill informed about the oil and gas industry.

Maybe the crowd here is too young to remember the famous Club of Rome report in the early 70’s. They predicted that, by the mid 80’s, (early 90’s at the latest) the oil was going to run out (along with many other physical resources) and the population was undoubtedly going to far outstrip the food supply. Malthus redux, etc, etc.

This is not to say there are not problems. Of course there are always challenges. That’s the nature of life, human or otherwise.

But I do wish humans could step out of their skins a bit and calmly apply a non-political assessment before applying political solutions to every perceived problem. Then apply the politics. Don’t always look at the world the other way around. The posts made after mine have generally seen all of this through the inflexible preconceived political lens of the writer. And before someone throws any labels at me, they’d do better to read my posts more carefully. I defy political description.

Back on topic. Human behavior is not immutable. But there are certain constants. China will continue to use resources at a growing pace because its (tyrannical) government has (finally) allowed at least some market-based freedoms which (however corruptly applied) have released (some) of the more basic human aspirations of the Chinese people. And the release of that previously frustrated human energy is rocking the global economic order to its core. Not that the Chinese government or CCP had any choice in the matter. The informational arbitrage between, for example, Taiwan and the mainland was simply too great for anyone (governmental or not) to ignore once the flow of information to the mainland was cracked open. Paradoxically, this process was vastly accelerated by the Hong Kong turnover in ’97, which was about the same time the internet began to morph into something else with the massive network effect taking place at the time.

And this is just the start. Now that the Chinese people have begun to embark on this journey, there will be no holding them back. Political upheaval will surely follow as day follows night. (No, not right now, not even a couple of years from now, probably. But certainly in the future with the relentlessness of inevitable generational changes, there will be political upheavals that will follow the economic upheavals)

The real issue posed by the “finite” resource” question is what does this mean for the rest of the world? I think it means that the type, price, and applications of resources will shift this way and that as humans shift their behaviors to meet the challenges of life. I don’t think it’s something to whine about or cry about any more than one whines about the wind or the rain. It’s inevitable. And, in response, each of us will shift our behavior this way and that to try to cope with the changes wrought by this massive shift in human behavior.

The pace of change is being catalyzed by the network effect of information sharing. It is a marvalous thing to behold, and not something to bemoan. Nobody can resist the power of the Chinese and Indian evolving economies. Not their own politicans. Not us. Not anything. The evolution can be sped up or slowed down, but as long as information is whipping around the globe at the speed of light…forgetaboutit. I have no problem with those who want to save their string and recycle their glass. But it won’t keep somebody in Huangzhou from wanting a car if all they now have is a bicycle.

Let’s get something else straight. Is there anyone here who can offer proof that, in the post-literate world, only nations with enough wealth have been able to recognize and deal with environmental issues? Then please enlighten us about where this miracle has taken place. Which poor country is demonstrably more able to deal with environmental degredation than Europe, the US and Canada and their ilk? I personally believe there’s lots more to do in the wealthy nations, but still, the poor countries do much, much worse.

That’s because wealthy nations are the only ones who have had the resources (duh) to address environmental issues. Poor nations (typically with corrupt, centrally planned, statist economies) never seem to find enough resources to address the problems manifesting themselves in the “Peoples’ Environment” with any amount of measurable success.

Oh, yeah. For the record. I am all in favor of regulatory strictures to protect the common weal. Sure environmental laws and regs get stupid. All government is stupid, not in motive, but in practice and application. So thank goodness for the environmentalists. I mean that sincerely. But, equally (or maybe even greater thanks would be due), thank goodness for market-related behaviors that create sufficient wealth so environmentalists can gain the political clout to motivate governments to do the right thing. When people are hungry they don’t think too much about the water and air. They can’t afford to do so.

For what it’s worth.


March 28, 2005 @ 6:31 am | Comment

Vaara, do you have an economic OR scientific background? I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on the specific scientific assumptions behind Peak Oil.

Look, nobody’s saying there won’t be changes, but we’re not going to SUDDENLY run out of oil.

Timothy mentioned a few pertinent points, though it won’t affect anybody who insists on holding on to their alarmism. When gasoline was 40 cents a gallon, cars got 15 mpg and blew out pollution you wouldn’t believe today. When gas is $5.00 a gallon, you’re going to see the most amazing innovations in transportation, heating, and power generation, and some serious conservation, as opposed to the little efforts made now. And Vaara, known oil reserves are higher now than ever in history, so the “declining rate of new discoveries” means exactly what?

Alarmism is probably a much bigger danger than SUVs. It goads people into all sorts of stupidity. Thank god there was somebody around to scoff when oil was supposed to “run out” by 1984, we were going to have a New Ice Age, and the population was going to dwindle by 80%.

The amount of petroleum used since the beginning of time would fill Lake Tahoe. Try to find Lake Tahoe on the globe, then take a deep breath, and calm down.

And throw away that tinfoil hat.

March 28, 2005 @ 7:53 am | Comment

sam_s: The “declining rate of new discoveries” means that each year, fewer new fields are being discovered.

If you can provide proof that *new* reserves are being discovered at a rate commensurate with the growth in demand for oil, I’d love to see it.

Re: Lake Tahoe, I’ve been to Lake Tahoe. I know perfectly well where Lake Tahoe is. You’ll have to make your unfounded accusations of geographical ignorance against someone else. Sorry for the inconvenience.

And incidentally, Bjorn Lomborg isn’t a scientist either.

March 28, 2005 @ 8:31 am | Comment

OK, so I was curious about this “Lake Tahoe” claim.

Lake Tahoe holds enough water to supply every person in the U.S. with 50 gallons a day for 5 years. That works out to approximately 27 trillion gallons.

A barrel of oil yields 25-30 gallons of gasoline, so let’s say that one “Tahoe” of gasoline is equivalent to 1 trillion barrels of crude.

According to a BP report in 2004, the world’s current proven oil reserves amount to just over 1 trillion barrels.

So, in the crudest terms (excuse the pun), we’ve already burned one “Tahoe” worth of gas, and we have one more to go. No problem, right?

Not until you consider the fact that the demand for oil is hardly likely to follow the same downslope of the bell curve as supply is. People began using gasoline about 100 years ago, but demand didn’t really take off until after World War II. Since then, demand has grown exponentially.

None of this is meant to suggest that the spigots will, at some date in the relatively near future, go completely dry. There will always be oil. But there won’t always be as much cheap, plentiful, easy-to-pump oil as there is today. Don’t forget that oil production isn’t just a matter of dollars and sense — it’s also a matter of energy efficiency. If it takes the energy equivalent of 1.00001 barrels of oil to extract a single barrel of oil from a “difficult” source, that’s obviously counterproductive — it represents a net LOSS of energy.

And we have a very long way to go before alternative energy sources (all of which ALSO require oil inputs, at least at the beginning!) can take up much of the slack.

So maybe “peak oil” is much ado about nothing. One thing’s for sure, though: if there ever IS a civilization-threatening oil crisis, nobody will be able to say they weren’t warned!

March 28, 2005 @ 11:03 am | Comment

I’m with Sam_S on this one.

Sure, it’s prudent to be very concerned about the current situation. But I think that many here are grossly underestimating the time it takes to adopt new technologies.

*Generations* to wean ourselves from oil???

When was the last time you saw a steam-powered anything? A hundred years ago, steam was the ubiquitous, reigning engine technology. About twenty years later it was not.

In 1980, few had glimpsed a “personal computer”. Ten or fifteen years later it was hard to find even a tiny corner store still using “cash register” technology. I’m sure we would all agree that today our lives and virtually everything we consume is intertwined with computer technology. How long did that dramatic transformation take?

We will all agree that there is not enough focus on alternative energy sources, hybrid autos, etc. But the reason is simply that the economic incentives are not yet there. When they are, change can happen quite rapidly.

March 28, 2005 @ 8:08 pm | Comment

CORRECTION to previous post:

Should read: “…many here are grossly OVERestimating the time it takes to adopt new technologies.”


March 28, 2005 @ 8:14 pm | Comment

I know perfectly well where Lake Tahoe is. You’ll have to make your unfounded accusations of geographical ignorance against someone else. Sorry for the inconvenience.

And incidentally, Bjorn Lomborg isn’t a scientist either.

It wasn’t a claim of geographic ignorance, silly, but lack of perspective. You can’t find Tahoe on the globe, because it’s too small. A lot of US maps aren’t even big enough to show it. And who is Bjorn Lomborg and why is she intruding on this conversation?

So, in the crudest terms (excuse the pun), we’ve already burned one “Tahoe” worth of gas, and we have one more to go.

Well, sorta. Those reserves are the amounts that are “known, proven, and economically recoverable at today’s price”. They’re way bigger than they used to be, and at, say, $80 per barrel, oil shale becomes economical (China has huge sources of oil shale, by the way), and deeper, more difficult exploration and extraction becomes economical. So as prices go up, reserves magically go up. There may be 5-10-20 times what you see in the figures actually beneath the surface, but it’s not worth going after right now.

There will always be oil. But there won’t always be as much cheap, plentiful, easy-to-pump oil as there is today…and…we have a very long way to go before alternative energy sources can take up much of the slack…(and)….if there ever IS a civilization-threatening oil crisis, nobody will be able to say they weren’t warned!

I agree completely (shocked?). My main point is that any model which ignores the fact that prices affect consumption, and that humans in politically free conditions make remarkable adaptations to change, will give a false picture.

No need to set your hair on fire and run screaming in the street to make your point (you’d just get hosed down and put away, anyway). Everytime somebody pays $50 US for a fillup, or $300 US for their electric bill, the back of their mind is saying “there must be a better way!” Leo DiCaprio driving to the Oscars in a Prius probably did more for the cause than all the purple prose on all the newsgroups in the world.

Not to gloss over all the difficult issues; this is just a comments thread, but we’re not going to suddenly wake up with $400/barrel oil, and none to be found anywhere. China is a bugaboo here, because they WILL be increasing consumption rapidly…..but not forever, and not without paying attention to the alternatives. Believe me, I’m involved in two alternative energy projects in China already. They know the score.

God, I’m going on here, but two anecdotes: When the French were pinched for fuel by the Germans in WWII, they developed tiny cars, essentially 4-wheeled bicycles, with an attachment on the rear, in CASE they got enough money for fuel and a motor. Otherwise they just pedaled it. In the US, rising oil prices encouraged the Beetle into the market slowly, but after the Arab oil crunch in the ’70’s, voila! The Super Beetle and the Honda Civic flourished.

Just two small examples of adaptation. We’ve got better tech and a rising incentive to conserve now, plus the CO2 problem. Go ahead and worry if it helps, but sober advocacy probably gets more results. I do bicycling, and tout the advantages of going car-free whenever possible, and I argue for a hysteria-free examination of nuclear power (I think the right and the left are equally boneheaded on this issue).


March 28, 2005 @ 8:25 pm | Comment

Shanghai, I believe Sam makes some very intelligent points as well. However, weaning ourselves off of oil is no small task. I mean, companies like General Motors and Volkswagen and United Airlines — their entier existence is based upon oil. New technology is great, and fuel cells and hybrids offer potential solutions. But I’ve been on the list for a Toyota Highlander hybrid for four months, and there are still none to be had. This is going to be painstaking, painfully slow process. As I said in earlier comments, it will be done, because man’s instinct for survival nearly always prevails. But I don’t think we’ve over-estimated the time it takes to adopt new technologies. It generally takes a loooooong time, especially woth so many billions of cars on the road. Hell, many in the thrid-world still haven’t adopted to lower lead standards adopted by the West 20 or 30 years ago.

March 28, 2005 @ 8:35 pm | Comment

Richard, if you can buy a Toyota anything, you can buy a fantastic bike. You’ve quit smoking, now get a lean, fit body and a great hobby.

Right here they make the finest bikes going, made to your dimensions, comfortable and beautiful. These folks are mighty fine corporate citizens, too. Tell ’em Sam sent you.

Yikes! Thread gone wild! Off my soapbox now.

March 28, 2005 @ 9:34 pm | Comment

I love bicycling. Unfortunately, I live in Arizona, a state of huge sprawling suburbs where, as in LA, a car is simply a necessity. When I lived in NYC, my sole method of transportation was my 10-speed, which I rode to work every day, even in the rain. I also bought two bicycles in China — each was stolen within 48 hours (despite the locks on the wheels and frame) so I gave up.

March 29, 2005 @ 9:08 am | Comment

“It generally takes a loooooong time ”

I guess we just have to disagree on this. To support my position I pointed out two huge examples from recent history (steam power and computing technology) that were adapted very quickly across a wide range of applications. Steam was once the primary technology for power production, manufacturing and transportation. Electronic computing has permeated every corner of our existence. How come it didn’t take “a loooooong time” for these changes? 😉

“Hell, many in the thrid-world still haven’t adopted to lower lead standards adopted by the West 20 or 30 years ago.”

Don’t forget the leap-frog effect that can happen in the developing world. Chinese went to cellphones faster than Americans because they leap-frogged answering machines and voicemail. DVDs have been ubiquitous here for some time because China leap-frogged VCR tech.

A nation with few gasoline filling stations might be able to adapt more quickly to hydrogen filling stations. 🙂

March 29, 2005 @ 9:26 am | Comment

To clarify my previous post (sorry!), I was referring to the rapid *replacement* (not adoption) of steam technology. Once internal combustion made better economic sense, steam technology vanished very rapidly.

March 29, 2005 @ 9:38 am | Comment

We’ll have to wait and see. I do not see the comparison with how fast computers took off. Things can catch on like wildfire. But converting the world off of oil is nt at all the same as getting them off the steam engine. It’s not like everyone in the country had one or more steam-engine-driven appliances. There weren’t “steam stations” on every block, and there weren’t massive multinationals all totally deopendent on steam, like General Motors, Ford, Daimler, Volkswagen. Oh, not to mention airlines and ship builders and lawnmower manufacturers. And God knows how many tens of thousands of workers’ salaries are tied in some way to the oil industry. Steam never permeated every aspect of society the way oil and gas have. In fact, I don’t see a comparison. It’s all about scale. How many people owned steam engines and how many people own internal combustion engines? It would mean a re-alignment of our society. As I said earlier, I honestly believe this will happen. But it will (has to) happen slowly, as the world economy simply could not tolerate the shock effects of a sudden switch.

March 29, 2005 @ 9:56 am | Comment

prices affect consumption

Actually, demand for oil is remarkably inelastic. I refer you to the following tidbit from the January edition Harper’s Index (yes, I know):

Percentage change since 2002 in the average U.S. price of gasoline : +35.2 [U.S. Department of Energy/Harper’s research ]

Change since then in the amount of gasoline Americans consume per capita : 0

March 29, 2005 @ 10:20 am | Comment

two things:

Oil isn’t just about gas prices. Petroleum is used in so many different products – plastics, anyone?

Natural resources and potential environmental collapse involve far more than oil. I just quoted the oil example in the post because it was so striking. There are plenty of other examples in the article. Paper, for one.

I do believe in human kind’s capability to technologically innovate out of problems. But the longer we wait, the more expensive and more difficult it will be. And some things may not be recoverable – mass extinctions of plant and animal species, for one. Oh, sure, you can talk about cloning and all that but the expense and the sheer number of species we are losing makes that kind of pie in the sky for anything over than your most charismatic mammals – pandas, etc.

March 29, 2005 @ 11:11 am | Comment

I’m glad everyone’s so upbeat about the world’s resources. Have you read the latest articles on China’s drinking water? Yikes.

March 29, 2005 @ 11:49 am | Comment

I have – I posted one of the articles last week. And this is from a Chinese official…very scary.

Helluva lot harder to clean up a mess like that than to prevent it in the first place, no?

March 29, 2005 @ 1:31 pm | Comment

About steam engines and such, Richard. It’s true that the steam engine was not as well integrated into past human experience as oil and gas are today (diesel, jet fuel, gasoline, plastics, electrical generation, cooking, heating, etc).

But human adaptability should not be underestimated. Our species is remarakably adaptable. Or, better put, some members of our species are remarkably adaptable. Adaptability is a survival skill, and our imperative to replicate DNA will ensure its ongoing persistance, believe me.

The important thing is that the Chinese are being swept up in a revolution so all-encompassing that it puts the Long March to shame.

That revolution is the globalization of human communication and information. Unless the species self-destructs (certainly possible, but unlikely) this revolution is unprecedented in its speed and impact on all of us.

I think we underestimate the changes wrought in our own lives by the common technologies we now take for granted. These technologies, too numerous to mention, have taken the blink of an eye to become fully embedded in our lives. As these technologies change, so will we. And, like the hour hands of the clock, we will not be able to see the changes as they occur right under our very noses. This blog is a prime example of taking a previsouly miraculous form of cummunication for granted. Bernouli’s principle was magic to the 8th century scientist and simply fluid dynamics to today’s aeronautical engineer.

But technology is not the issue. It is our ongoing construction of our human reality and how we choose to interact with the empirical world that really matters. That, and the attainment of the proper balance between the needs of the community and the needs of the individual.

These are the dynamics that really matter. And the Chinese are no different than any other people when it comes to finding that balance. No society yet has it right. Maybe none will ever do so.

The use of physical resources is simply a byproduct of the way humans think and interact with our reality. Consciousness is an emerging phenomenon that theoretical physicists now believe may be tantamount to the network effect manifesting itself in the neural network that is the human brain.

I used to be a string-saver, too. But I was proven wrong so many times that I now bend my will in humble submission to the reality of the world, while preserving my focus on the construction of my reality within those constraints.

I guess this seems way off topic , and probably well beyond the interests of the folks on this site. So I should stop these posts.

March 29, 2005 @ 6:42 pm | Comment

Really Timothy, we are in agreement as to man’s adaptability. It’s just that in my viewpoint, our dependency on petroleum in just about every aspect of our society is utterly unprecedented, rivalled only by oiur dependency on air and water. We’ll adapt, for sure, because that’s man’s nature and we’ve always done so before. But getting off of oil is unlike any other dependency, and will require a remodelling of just about every industry and every product on the planet earth. It will take generations, and we’re still acting as though there are bottomless reservoirs.

March 29, 2005 @ 7:44 pm | Comment

I love bicycling. Unfortunately, …as in LA, a car is simply a necessity.

Okay, don’t go car-free (almost no one does). So just get a car AND a Rivendell. The more I ride mine, the more I like it. (I should charge them for all this advertising, but they’re a small, conscientious–meaning poor–organization) Just go take a look….you know you want to.

One way or another, you’ll burn less gas and do your body and mind a favor.

March 29, 2005 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

Check out this article in the Guardian:

“Two-Thirds of World’s Resources ‘Used Up'”


March 29, 2005 @ 10:25 pm | Comment

If China was America and other absurdities

Richard points to Lisa who points to an Asia Times article titled Too Much for Mother Earth. The message is simple: if China emulates America’s current consumption patterns it could result in “an earth sucked dry”, according to Richard. Lisa wants “a M…

March 30, 2005 @ 3:01 am | Comment


"To consume is gl…

August 11, 2005 @ 11:34 pm | Comment

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