« Transcending Superheroism | Main | Metablogging »

More Collapse

Tyler Cowen brings up two good points. One is that Jared Diamond's assessment of Australia's sustainable level of population seems just bizarre. The other is his good formulation of the basic problem with the book's second part: "if you are a pessimist you should be concerned with the uniqueness of the contemporary world, not its similarities to the past." I think it's silly to be either a "pessimist" or an "optimist" about the environment. Instead, as I tried to make clear in my earlier post we should be optimistic about some things and more worried about others. And, again, as I said there, if there's one big thing we should worry about it's energy. This is where the uniqueness point comes in. In the grand scale of things, the phenomenon of a society based around the exploitation of non-renewable energy sources (i.e., fossil fuel rather than timber) is quite new.

The industrial revolution to today takes in a shorter timespan than the period from the founding of the Greenland Norse colony to its collapse. Perhaps the best lesson history can teach us is simply that "modern society" as we understand it is not nearly as long-lived as we like to think. It's not at all unusual for something to work just fine for 300 years and then stop working. Prima facie, then, there's a real question about how sustainable a form of civilization based on such fuel sources is over the long term. Technological improvements (easier fuel-extraction, more efficient fuel use, enhanced reliance on "new" renewables like wind and solar) may save us, but they also may not. People have a tendency to forget that wishing doesn't make technological progress happen. In the early 1950s, people looked at recent advances in rocketry and nuclear power and seemed to assume that, soon enough, we would have nuclear power spaceships taking us to-and-fro. But we don't. Manned spaceflight and nuclear fission now both appear to be technologies which face very serious problems that technological advances have not been able to really overcome.

January 4, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d834221a3553ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference More Collapse:

» Red State Vikings Redux from Silflay Hraka
Malcolm Gladwell, last mentioned here as the author of the New Yorker book review that spawned the great Norse fish-bone controversy of '04 has left a comment about the to-do in the responses to Red State Vikings. I'm always happy... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 4, 2005 4:19:48 PM

Comments

Not tech problems. Economic problems. Nuke power is more expensive than alternatives if done right. Much alternative energy is a mismatch with the current power grid system. There is plenty of energy. We will do what needs to be done when forced to do so economically.

Posted by: bakho | Jan 4, 2005 2:23:39 PM

I think this: 'Perhaps the best lesson history can teach us is simply that "modern society" as we understand it is not nearly as long-lived as we like to think.' undercuts this: 'This is where the uniqueness point comes in. In the grand scale of things, the phenomenon of a society based around the exploitation of non-renewable energy sources (i.e., fossil fuel rather than timber) is quite new.'

The renewability of a resource isn't on or off; it's more a function of the time it takes to renew. On the scale at which they were working, in Diamond's Norse example, timber wasn't renewable in the sense that we think of things as being renewable, because the Norse were using Greenland's forests up, and destroying the inputs necessary for them, faster than they could be replaced.

Posted by: allen claxton | Jan 4, 2005 2:26:41 PM

" And, again, as I said there, if there's one big thing we should worry about it's energy. This is where the uniqueness point comes in. In the grand scale of things..."

Well, there are actually many points of uniqueness that could lead to a collapse beyond just energy depletion.

How 'bout the fact that we can now tinker with atoms and DNA in ways that could lead to a catastrophic destruction of not just civilization, but life itself?

On the apocalypse scale, finding new energy sources seems relatively low on the threat matrix.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 4, 2005 2:26:41 PM

Not tech problems. Economic problems.

But that is a tech. problem, bakho. There are dozens of amazing, world-of-tomorrow technologies I could enjoy, if only I were rich enough (a la Bill Gates).

But when a technology is not economical, one either finds a tech. way to make it economical, or one doesn't. But the problem is still a tech. one.

If I make a cold fusion power plant tomorrow, that cost $100 trillion to make, we have gotten no closer to solving our energy problem.

Some things are just expensive, and may always stay that way. We have become very accustomed to "Moore's Law" type of thinking, that any new technology will eventually become cheap enough for the masses.

It ain't necessarily so.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 4, 2005 3:10:45 PM

If freakin' Austrailia is approaching a collapse because of the unsustainability of supporting its 20 million (and growing) population on a mere three million square miles (admitedly, much of it is pretty arid), all I can say is Manhattanites had better start stocking up on spam and bottled water yesterday.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jan 4, 2005 3:14:18 PM

This is tangential to the whole energy issue, but I wonder if anyone here has some comments.

It hit me the other day that there is a gaping inconsistency in the typical anti-environmentalist talking points as I understand them.

The first talking point goes that the earth is just way too big for people to be wringing their hands about human activity ruining the environment.

The second one goes that solar and wind alternatives are "piddle power"--ridiculous fuzzy-minded sources of energy that can't possibly meet human needs.

If you combine these two points, you are left with a biosphere that dwarfs human activity in scope, and yet paradoxically is powered by an energy source that is far too feeble to exploit effectively.

It's obvious that both premises cannot be true, but you can hear both of them trotted separately out by those who want to dismiss anyone who points out the unsustainability of the carbon economy. Can this contradiction be turned into a useful debating point? (I.e. "Ann Coulter says that the earth recovers easily from massive oil spills. Since it does this using solar and tidal power exclusively, why aren't we using these seemingly limitless energy sources directly?") I'm unsure of that, since I'm not very good at thinking like a debater. It might be a strawman, but I think there is a particular kind of anti-environmentalist that actually does present the case in these terms.

I tend to reject the first premise as clearly false but I believe there is some truth to the second. The energy of sunlight reaching the earth is already a pretty close fit to the energy consumed by the biosphere (surely within an order of magnitude), whereas the human capacity for exploiting energy could eventually dwarf that of all other life on earth, depending on what we choose to do with the energy. What's indisputable is that human power is already big enough to harm the environment and continues to grow.

I think there could be enough solar available to support human needs for the foreseeable future if used sensibly. The main questions are technological and economic, such as cost-effective conversion to usable power, storage, and the need for large initial capital investment (particularly for centralized "concentrating solar power" running steam turbines). Unfortunately, this requires a lot of empirical data to make the case effectively. What struck me as novel was the obvious contradiction in the reasoning of the "solar scoffer"--one who believes that alternative power is neither necessary nor effective. (I realize that nuclear power advocates have a different, more consistent take on this issue.)

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 4, 2005 3:26:21 PM

Well, in any event, America will pay for her hubris. They always do. Bend over kids. You're about to get one helluva whoopin.

Posted by: Zeus | Jan 4, 2005 3:26:39 PM

The Norsemen vs Us analogy is too neat - as has already been shown - but what I take to be Matt's larger point is very important: history is fundamentally linear, not circular - as humans like to pretend it is. All humans do indeed live the 'bubble' of their eras, the conceit of 'always was, always will be'. History does repeat itself, but more metaphorically than really. In a vital sense, history doesn't repeat itself at all. It is a line. You can analogize nanotechnology and modern genetics to something ancient, but the analogy is going to be very strained, and probably counterproductive. We, as a species, are going somewhere, and we can definitely fuck it up or not.

The circular view of things is comforting, and we humans probably need a 'continuous' model, but we confuse models and reality way too much. Matt points out an example in this post (the pointless excercise of deciding whether you can declare yourself officially an 'optimist' or 'pessimist' about the environment). Rome is burning, and we're talking about 'ists' and 'isms'?

The circular model is often terrible for politics. For one thing, it excuses intellectual laziness, mock profundity, cheap middlebrow, etc. We are in that kind of funk here in the US, I think: stuck in our post WW2-hegemony picture of ourselves ('always was, always will be'). The more things change, the more they change.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jan 4, 2005 3:27:42 PM

The renewability of a resource isn't on or off; it's more a function of the time it takes to renew.

It makes sense for timber, which is renewable. Which is not to say one can't run out of timber, as if the supply is limited, it is quite possible to use it faster than it will grow. But there is at least the theoretical possibility of reducing consumption of timber so that it can replenish, for any society that relies on timber.

But fossil fuel seems to be a different category of beast. Whereas timber may only be practically impossible to replace, in some occasions, fossil fuel is always going to be impossible to replace. It is a resource guaranteed to be depleted, there will never be a renewal (unless you think really, really long scale, in which case the renewal could even be for another species).

But examples like the Norse on Greenland, or the modern day residents of Nauru with their phosphates, these are the examples of what modern society is doing, but on a massive scale. So I am inclined to think this is somewhat unique in human history.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 4, 2005 3:30:25 PM

Paul Callahan:

One crucial point to remember is that fossil fuel is solar power. It comes from dead biomass that lived millions of years ago. But the thing is, that energy from the sun was collected and stored over millions and millions of years, and yet we are burning through that store in a hundred (s).

It is entirely possible that human power output radically exceeds that of the non-human biomass on the planet. And we are able to accomplish that by using an energy bank that was built up over the course of millions of years.

When the bank is empty, we probably have to come up with either much more efficient (and massively deployed) solar, or an alternate power source (eg, fusion or fission).

I don't think the stance is contradictory, but I also don't think it is even remotely comforting. It doesn't actually bolster the anti-environmentalists position at all -- it weakens it.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 4, 2005 3:37:54 PM

People have a tendency to forget that wishing doesn't make technological progress happen.

That's true, but technology already exists to replace petroleum energy sources with coal energy, including conversion to liquid fuel (as done in the past by Germany and South Africa in both cases out of political necessity). Coal is also non-renewable, but there is a lot more of it. The near-term limiting factor is more likely to be the effect on the environment than the actual depletion of fossil fuel resources.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 4, 2005 3:39:40 PM

One crucial point to remember is that fossil fuel is solar power. It comes from dead biomass that lived millions of years ago. But the thing is, that energy from the sun was collected and stored over millions and millions of years, and yet we are burning through that store in a hundred (s).

Yes, I understand that. My point was not that there is enough continuous solar power for human needs. My point was that the earth cannot be both too big for human activity to damage and too small to exploit its energy source for human needs.

It's obvious to me that the first claim is wrong, but in a situation where you cannot refute it empirically, you can at least point out the contradiction. Someone who thought the environment was too big and robust to harm would have to concede that there was enough solar power to replace the carbon economy. Reductio ad absurdum.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 4, 2005 3:49:04 PM

We use fossil coal/oil/gas essentially four
different ways:
a) burning it for direct heat
b) burning it to move vehicles
c) burning it to produce electricity
d) converting it into chemicals and plastics

For a/b/c, there are other ways to produce
electricity (nuclear, solar), and other stuff
to burn (renewable biomass), albeit not quite
so abundant and easy to handle.

The use of fossil hydrocarbons as a raw material
may be hardest to replace.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Jan 4, 2005 3:56:50 PM

The use of fossil hydrocarbons as a raw material may be hardest to replace.

With unlimited energy (think fusion or space-based solar) you should be able to synthesize any hydrocarbon you like.

In more practical terms, I would say that once we stop using oil and coal as fuel, it would take us an awfully long time to run out of them as manufacturing materials.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 4, 2005 4:04:29 PM

Now for my silly response:

We use Egyptian mummies essentially three
different ways:
a) burning them to power steam locomotives
b) grinding them up for quack medicines
c) displaying in major museums

For a/b there are other ways to power the railroads, and no limit to what we can use in our quack medicines.

The use of mummies to display in museums may be the hardest to replace.

(Probably not a good analogy, but I couldn't resist.)

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 4, 2005 4:12:25 PM

Modern industrial society is not only younger than many historical societies, but it is much more dynamic and faster changing technologically. We don't have much idea what technology will be like in 100 years. That's why "sustainability" isn't a very useful concept for figuring out what to do now.

IMO, the only major environmental threat faced by the developing world is global warming. We don't have a very good idea how much of a threat that really is, but it could be bad. Everything else is small potatoes, and mostly getting better.

Posted by: ed | Jan 4, 2005 4:17:39 PM

One crucial point to remember is that fossil fuel is solar power. It comes from dead biomass that lived millions of years ago. But the thing is, that energy from the sun was collected and stored over millions and millions of years, and yet we are burning through that store in a hundred (s).


Converting Solar power into something relatively portable - like a liquid? Plants produce oil from

Vegetable oil (soybean,etc) works, but it doesn't do it efficiently (or cheaply) enough. But algae has the potential to be much, much, much more efficient. And it can grow on seawater in a desert. And it can work in diesel engines without changing them.


http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html

Posted by: fasteddie | Jan 4, 2005 4:46:52 PM

To be clear, oil is a renewable resource (in millions of years all the dead biomass on the earth today will be oil), the question is how much does each BTU cost to produce. Oil was around for a long time before it became a cost effective energy resource. As it becomes scarce, the cost will increase and make other sources of energy (solar, wind, nuclear) more cost effective.

Energy consumption is NOT a problem. We have plenty of means to supply it. A sudden, radical shift in the common source of energy (in today's case oil) would cause some economic dislocation, but in the long term, energy production will no more be an issue than it is today.

Posted by: Tilam | Jan 4, 2005 5:17:36 PM

Matthew,

In re the population of Australia: once again my co-blogger Carlos has been there first. He did a quick survey of the literature a few years back; here it is.

Here's a list taken from _How Many People Can the Earth Support_, by Joel E. Cohen (W.W. Norton, 1996) of various estimates [of Australian capacity] over the years:

1921 - 50 million, Thomas, food limitation

1922 - 65 million, Taylor, resource (including rainfall) limitation and western European standard of living

1924 - 40 million, East, food limitation

1924 - 480 million, Penck, vegetation analysis, subsistence standard of living

1925 - 20 to 40 million, Wickens, numerical extrapolation

1925 - 15 to 20 million, Huntington, rainfall analysis, US standards of living

1928 - 10 to 15 million, Behnam, optimum population estimated by economic theory

1928 - 30 million, Barkley, following Huntington using western US data from the 1920 census

1929 - 12.6 million, Belz, logistic curve with an asymptote at 12.6 million

1933 - 40 to 50 million, Mullett and Waldham, food limitation

1937, 1946 - 20 to 25 million, Trumble, food limitation based on climate and soil. Trumble actually conducted experiments in South Australia.

1937 - 20 million, Taylor (same as above), resource and rainfall limitation, US standard of living

1973 - 70 million, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, food limitation assuming food previously grown for export will be used internally. "However, constraints from water supplies are likely to impose limits well below this [...] food supplies are unlikely to be a prime determinant of the ultimate Australian population or the rate of population growth."

1973 - 37 million, Aston et al., water limitation based on known reserves and consumption

1973 - 280 million, Holmes, water limitation estimated from total Australian run-off and 1973 styles of consumption

Oh, and Cohen quotes a newspaper article where two unnamed academics estimate between 12 and 18 million people: "The present population of nearly 18 million is already large enough to support almost all social goals and too large to support others." (May 7th, 1994, Canberra Times, pg. 7)

I wonder which 6 million they'd kick out?

[end Carlos]

Note that Australians themselves can get very exercised over this issue; a large minority of them think that Australia has "enough" or "too many" people already.


Doug M.

Posted by: Doug Muir | Jan 4, 2005 5:39:50 PM

Manned spaceflight and nuclear fission now both appear to be technologies which face very serious problems that technological advances have not been able to really overcome

I donno Matt -- between these two and the unfulfilled promise of science fiction, I don't think you've built a very convincing case for the intractability of anything. The recent shuttle disasters are failures of decades-old technology, and the fact is that breeder reactors largely *have* solved the problems of fission power production. You shouldn't lay the blame that rightly belongs to NASA or the world's terrorists and environmental activists at the feet of science. Other than the disappointing paucity of flying cars, it's still doing pretty well.

Posted by: tom | Jan 4, 2005 5:42:22 PM

It ought to be mentioned that coal and oil are NOT renewable. There was once the combination of factors which permitted the change of biomass to coal or oil, but that combination was unique. There aren't places on earth where dead things are some fraction of the way to becoming oil or coal. The days of huge fern swamps and forests are gone.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Jan 4, 2005 6:12:38 PM

The centerpiece of my understanding for some years has been a CSIRO compendium
of reports around 1981, concluding that in the event of global warming, the
most detrimental effects would be due to deforestation. Soil and undergrowth
would be vulnerable to floods and droughts, etc.

If that's so, then privileging the environment and environmental skills over
their short-term market value would be an investment in our future prosperity
and sustainable population level.

In principle it's not hard to sketch an Australia with an extra few tens of
million people. We have this tremendous coast: solar-tidal offshore water
condensers together with aggressive water management and any of numerous
solar energy schemes could provide food, water and electricity for many new
hi-tech cities. For motor fuel, the best two bets seem to be (1) nuclear
production of hydrogen which is then used to promote coal to hydrocarbons,
and (2) methane-producing algae farms. The latter is water-thirsty, but
eventually could be turned to carbon sequestration. The former is one means
for large-scale energy storage.

The problem with these engineering dreams is capital, in a capital-hungry
world context where two-thirds of the world and its vigorous young people are
trying to do very much the same infrastructure things, as well as getting a
proportionate share of industrial growth. It's a SimEarth brain-cracker:
should a government try to be running an industrial revolution under heavy
civic and environmental taxes, or just let it go flat out and hope to fund  
long-term projects from the profits later on?

Posted by: Jonathan Burns | Jan 4, 2005 7:03:58 PM

Algae farms use salt water so they are not really water-thirsty

Posted by: c | Jan 4, 2005 7:53:56 PM

Hasn't modernity been denser in change than the preceding, traditional societies? Might most human beings in previous millennia have lived without any expectation of changes in technology or mores in their lifetimes? Can you imagine us, be we moderns or pomos, without such expectations fulfilled daily? Don't our contemporaries outnumber all the dead since our species emerged? Don't we (at least in the G7 countries) expect to outlive our parents, when the rule for most of history and all of prehistory was that parents expected most of their childen to die in their first few years? The present knows some novelties.

Posted by: Dabodius | Jan 4, 2005 8:49:51 PM

Don't our contemporaries outnumber all the dead since our species emerged?

That's the type of observation one can make about a petri dish of active yeast cells, at the moment just before they all drown in their own shit.

Hasn't modernity been denser in change than the preceding, traditional societies?

Not when adjusted for population size.

Posted by: felixrayman | Jan 4, 2005 10:00:34 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.