Well, it’s a few weeks later than I would have liked, but I did finally find a satisfactory minority report on peak oil.

It may not seem like it, but I very much proceed in a dialectical fashion in my reasoning. I practice flipping from one extreme to another, and seeing what survives each flip to the other end of the spectrum. Usually, when I hit a wall with resource issues, I go to something like kurzweil and the ‘law of accelerating returns’, which has been profitable in the past. But when you get right down into the data, you do need a coherent counterargument, not just an opposite one .

So anyway: peak oil debunked doesn’t actually debunk peak oil. In fact, it affirms the existence of the peak, and even acknowledges we might be past it. What this blog really does is radically redefine what is usually thought about these things. If you wanted to summarize the novel contributions, you could really say that this fella is arguing for efficiency and technological progress as trans formative factors in conjunction with peak oil that will change our civilization. In many ways he’s a technological trans humanist who acknowledges oil peak. A rare bird indeed.

What really gets debunked is ‘doomerism’, which is just another word for apocalyptic fatalism. There are, as of this writing, 366 numbered points; some are spurious, some are faulty logic, some are character expos e’s of some of the malthusian, fascistic, and racist elements in the peaking movement, some are outright yellow hit pieces. But mixed in there are some real gems which spin things in some interesting directions.

For instance, we can now point to some instances of countries where demand for energy has actually contracted without destroying the economy. “Peak demand”, is an interesting idea, but it raises some questions for sure. When you talk about efficiency, the fundamentals that drive increasing demand, ( growing population, drive for rising living standards, etc) aren’t going away. So what’s going on in the areas where demand is contracting? It could be a couple things: one is true technological progress, where you do pretty much the same with less energy input, and the other is what’s called orderly demand destruction. That is, you price people out of the market for certain things, or squeeze them so hard in some areas they can’t keep spending in others.

Now it’s not really clear what’s happening in sectors where demand is flat or even shrinking, and it’s reassuring to see that the economy in these places isn’t behaving like a bird flying into a jet engine (yet). But you have to wonder what the mix here is, between true innovation and controlled austerity. Given how artificially inflated economic numbers are, it’s pretty much impossible to get an accurate gauge of true standard of living measured against net per capita energy use.

In systemic terms, what worries me is that we are not really making the system more efficient in a true sense, but merely stripping out the buffer. What I mean is, when you’ve squeezed people to the point where they’ve shed all their non-essential expenditures, all that’s left is the essential ones. When you don’t go to the movies, or drive for fun, or take yoga classes anymore, or buy luxury foods, all you have left is rent, heating, and your staple foods. If this is what we’re calling efficiency, then we’re not actually making any progress, or even mitigating damage. If we keep contracting the liquid fuels supply or squeezing net energy in other ways, eventually the shocks will become too large to offset, and there will be no extraneous expenses left to shed.

You would reach a crossover point where the system gets too brittle to endure any further shocks, and it is very hard to predict where that crossover point might be. Obviously there is a price point where energy expenditures as % of world GDP bring everything to a halt. Eventually the equation stops working, and in a resilient system where you can’t distinguish efficiency from stripping out the buffer that makes it resilient in the first place, you might not have much warning until you’ve already gone over the edge.

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3 thoughts on “Thesis and Antithesis

  1. well the problem with an efficient system is that part of efficiency involves stripping out that “lifestyle” buffer in the face of scare resources; “efficient” is a bad measure that way. I’m not an oil doomer, either–we’ve “had the technology” for decades now so if necessary if serious crisis–as opposed to one spread out systematically, which means “everyone but the wealthy”–kicks in it will be possible to adjust–but I think that the laggardness in this regard is going to be a huge problem in less time than most expect.

  2. Hi Zac-

    Was a regular reader of your site for some time, then events conspired to keep me awayfor a bit and the first post I read when checking back in includes a link to an article that I wrote at The Oil Drum. Quite the little bit of synchronicity–I guess that’s a message from the universe to refocus on my practice! Thanks for all the insight you’ve provided…

    ~Jeff

  3. Hey jeff.

    coincidence is the currency of the realm around here… cause it sure aint money.

    It’s reassuring to know my corrosive influence is seeping into many unexpected corners of the internet.

    keep up the good work.

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