How can resource depletion be sustainable?
(In conversation with a “technological optimist”)
I was so impressed by the ‘Growth Delusion’ article by Nick Reeves (published on this blog on Monday), that I decided to bring it to the attention of members of my extended family and to one person in particular (who has asked to remain anonymous). What follows is just over 2000 words in length but it made no sense to me to arbitrarily divide it up into pieces (you will either be interested or you won’t)…
I started by pointing out what I feel sets this article by Nick Reeves apart – the facts and figures that he has compiled in order to back-up his argument that human civilisation cannot survive in the long term unless it acknowledges that technology alone cannot solve our problems. Here are two examples:
— Agriculture: It is true that, globally, we waste an awful lot of food. Therefore, we could feed a lot more people if we eliminated this waste. However, as Nick Reeves points out, global agriculture today is an industry that converts oil into food. Therefore, what will it do when the Earth runs out of hydrocarbons (and phosphorus)?
— Industry: The era of cheap energy has come – or is coming – to an end. Meanwhile: how can China consuming 53% of the World’s cement production; 48% of the World’s iron ore; and/or 47% of the World’s coal… be described as anything other than unsustainable?
In response, my anonymous relative insisted that Nick Reeves facts were nothing of the sort; and implied that he/she thinks I am misanthropic and unduly pessimistic. My anonymous relative is very clearly a technological optimist, but I prefer to think of myself as an environmental realist.
What follows are 10 points made by my anonymous relative; with my refutation appended to each one in bold text:
1. He [Reeves] claims that the economic crisis was a consequence of dangerous speculation on the part of the banks. This is not a fact. The alternative hypothesis is that it was a consequence of rotten policy-making by government leaders who believed that they knew what was best for society at large. I hope this is not a statement of faith in some vague global conspiracy to install global socialist government (of which I too would disapprove). I hope also that you are not suggesting that the solution would have been weaker regulation.
2. He attributes short-term trends in commodity prices solely to demand considerations, but gives no corresponding analysis to what might happen on the supply side, simply taking it as a given that reserves will wither and making no reference to the possibility of finding new reserves at any point. Thankfully, Antarctica is protected from exploration (which I am sure will one day become viable). Sadly, the Arctic is not so protected. I hope your faith in technology and human ingenuity can keep pace with increasing demand.
3. His “facts” about the growth of China are also disingenuous. He refers to a historical growth rate of 10% pa and then projects that this will continue, even though the available evidence shows that this growth has not continued and may well soften further over the coming years. Thankfully, China’s growth rate has dropped from 10%pa to 7%pa, which means the doubling time for its economy has increased from 7 to 10 years. This is still nowhere near being environmentally sustainable.
4. Likewise, his estimates of Chinese cement, iron ore, and coal use are all based upon an enormously imbalanced economy in China, where government policies have long repressed consumption and incomes among ordinary Chinese workers in order to drive through massive infrastructure projects, many of dubious value – a model of uncertain merit, but which some experts have deemed to be economically unsustainable. Consumption of resources is the problem – it does not matter who is doing the consuming. Think of all the rare earth metals required to give everyone in China a new mobile phone.
5. The claim that lost-cost hydrocarbons will be a distant memory by 2050 may prove true, but until we get a little closer to that date, this is not a fact, but rather an assertion, and one with considerable uncertainty attached given the volume of known coal reserves in the world. Higher retail prices for hydrocarbons increases oil company turnover but a fivefold reduction in EROEI for unconventional fossil fuels does beg the question as to when you stop flogging a dead horse.
6. The idea likewise that a depleted supply of hydrocarbons risks global economic collapse is also open to debate. Even if one agreed with his view (unproven) that we are about to run out of hydrocarbons, I would still question the inevitability of economic collapse. Everything would depend upon the timeframe and upon the extent to which prices throughout the journey are left to reflect the realities of supply and demand, as opposed to the political priorities of people who think they know better. Your questioning of it does not make it any less likely to happen. The last financial meltdown was triggered by lending money to risky people. The next one will be a global debt crisis resulting from the end of the era of “cheap” energy (which has made the success of the last 200 years possible). If we do not plan – and put into place – a transition, collapse is almost inevitable. This is a lesson we should learn from population dynamics in biology.
7. Similarly, his point about the recycling of metals is hardly a statement of facts. If these commodities were so precious as he makes out the fact is we would be recycling more of them, and many of our consumer products would have much shorter replacement cycles. To make these claims with no consideration either of the estimated reserves of un-mined metals still under the ground or of the history of metals exploration is surely a significant oversight? Please remember that I am a geologist, [name redacted]. I find it deeply depressing to admit that much of what my fellow geologists do is, in effect, treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation. However, denial is not a river in Egypt; and a business that is selling its assets to generate turnover will eventually be bankrupted.
8. The risks to food supply, to a greater extent than is true of other resources, I am inclined to take seriously. However, many of the issues here are not about resource constraints, they are about political constraints – immoral European subsidies, an unwillingness to support the development or application of GM crops, the shameful subsidies to turn sugar and corn into ethanol, and the diversion of water resources away from agriculture for environmental purposes are all excellent examples from the developed world. As a hydrogeologist, I am already aware that groundwater mining is a reality in almost every arid country in the World. Food supply problems are a little more distant but, just as a spike in food prices contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings two years ago, increased extreme weather events of all kinds are going to make such spikes more frequent in the future.
9. And his solution to the food problem – organic farming – is just hilarious. Every serious scientific study I have ever seen on this subject tells me that global-scale organic farming would lead to mass starvation. What is wrong, I ask with just letting prices do their work? In a resource-starved world, I would expect a much greater proportion of the world simply to go vegetarian. Now I have no problem with organic practices, but you tell me that the facts here speak for themselves. So where is his evidence that organic farming can do the trick? His comment here is again just an assertion. I am not opposed to GMOs because they could damage the environment. I am opposed to them for the same reason I disapproved of Nestle selling powdered baby milk to mothers perfectly capable of breast-feeding their babies. Technology may be very useful but it is useless if you have no fuel to use it. On a global scale, therefore, low-tech solutions locally-sourced may well prove more resilient.
10. The fact is, at every turn, he is looking for the angle, not the fact. Arctic ice levels are indeed very low – and lower than some (but not all) models predicted 15 years ago. But if he is going down this route, why just pick this piece of evidence? Why not also talk about the trends in temperature? Are they tracking ahead of schedule too? When one reads something like this, and detects zero scope for uncertainty, it is hard to take the presentation of his “facts” seriously. I am not sure what models predicted faster collapse of Arctic sea ice. The reasons for the hiatus in global surface temperature rise in the last 14 years (or so) are well understood. You are just parroting junk science peddled by merchants of doubt. I would like to see you dismiss all the other positive feedback mechanisms now starting to make their presence felt – such as thawing permafrost which last year released more CO2e that humans did in 2010.
I could go on, but I am not sure much would be served by it. Martin, you and I come at the world with very different world views, and also with different knowledge sets. When I read something like this piece, I am afraid I don’t see facts and logic. I see emotion and anger. I also see a lack of faith in humanity as a whole, a distaste for our species and for our civilisation that is frankly not only misguided but also profoundly depressing. I do not presume to understand your world view (apart from that imposed on you by your chosen career). However, for the record, I am neither a progressive nor a liberal, and I do not believe in ‘big government’. I just believe humans should take more responsibility for their actions. I am socially and politically conservative with the sole exception that I do not believe in the delusion of growthmania or that technology can and will invalidate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. What I find depressing is that so many think we can win the fight modernity has picked with science. The history of human civilisation is replete with examples of those who – whether they understood it or not – lost just such a fight.
Despite having rebutted all the points made, my anonymous relative responded by ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of climate scientists; focussing on what he/she repeatedly referred to as significant uncertainty; and personalising all predictions of near-term problems as if they were merely my opinions.
And so it went on, with emails backwards and forwards. I tried very hard to point out that: I am merely reflecting the opinions of the vast majority of climate scientists; the uncertainty is now vanishingly small; the IPCC has spent decades under-reporting the scale of the problem we face; and there is an ongoing business-led campaign to discredit the science and the scientists. However, the harder I tried to do this, the more (it seems to me) my anonymous relative appeared to feel I was attacking him/her personally.
I was told my moral certainty (about the need to act) was a cause for concern: I responded each time by referring to the facts of history and the opinions of the World’s professional bodies. However, each time, it was as if I was accusing my anonymous relative of personally orchestrating the campaign of denial.
When I highlighted my concerns regarding Richard Lindzen’s misleading and hypocritical presentation in the Palace of Westminster over a year ago (of which I had first-hand experience), I was told I was being “preposterous”. My suspicion of Lindzen was countered with suspicion of some (un-named) mainstream scientists.
When I cited the Geological Society’s carefully-worded public statement regarding climate change, I was told that believing my “doomsday scenario” to be suspicious did not require the invocation of conspiracy theory. What I never got, however, was any valid reason to dispute the scientific consensus.
Finally, my anonymous relative suggested that it would be best to bring our exchanges to a close but only after once more insisting that climate science is uncertain and/or corrupted and that I am misanthropic (with my final observations added [in square brackets]):
Nonetheless, climate science has implications that are clearly political rather than scientific [I agree]. This is true really of any area of science where the stakes are high and the uncertainties are significant [repetition of a lie does not make it true]; and this, unfortunately, does tend to encourage people to talk about things that are really based upon personal value judgements [yes it sure does], as if they were scientific fact. I have seen this, not just within the public domain, but in scientific establishments and within professional scientific bodies [i.e. equating consensus with the corruption of science]. You do it too, by discounting uncertainties [what uncertainties?], by interpreting everything as a contest of two polar-opposite world views [because they very probably are], and in your distaste for modernity [my distaste is for the collateral damage modernity has caused].
This is unbelievably frustrating, it is as if I have just wasted a fortnight trying to explain something to someone who is physically incapable of listening.