Mockingly did Homo Economicus (“Rational man”) take notice of the somewhat overenthusiastic predictions done by Harold Camping. The End of Times, originally planned on September 1994, was, after careful recalculation, shifted to the 21st of May, a day that passed like every other. Now we can look forward to the 21st of October as the actual date, I can’t wait… Of course, this is nothing new, predictions about the end of time have been made for centuries already and all have been proved false. One would not blame us for not taking the next claim by a self styled prophet that seriously.
But Homo Economicus is also not always that rational and in a somewhat other branch of doomsaying there are practically as many wrong predictions, but new predictions are treated with reverence and respect and the long list of failed predictions does not diminish the perceived importance of the new ones. I am talking about this so called Peak Everything; Peak Oil, Peak Coal, Peak Copper, Peak Gold, Peak Food, etc. and how it will be the end of our progress. These predictions are in line with our intuition (probably just like the predictions of mr. Camping are in line with the intuition of religious zealots) and we hold them as inevitable truths, no matter how many predictions fail to materialize.
The site http://rayharvey.org/index.php/2010/01/peak-oil/ lists some of those predictions on Peak Oil. Lines like:
“Reserves to last only thirteen years” (1939, Department of the Interior).
“Reserves to last thirteen years” (1951, Department of the Interior, Oil and Gas Division).
“We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade” (President Jimmy Carter speaking in 1978 to the entire world).
Are in hindsight quite amusing, but were seen as genuinely valid and dire predictions at the time. In the meanwhile the production of oil has increased almost continuously, right through all predictions of Peak Oil. Just like Harold Camping the date of Peak “Resource of Choice” is moved ever further into the future, but it would be more honest for most people to admit that frankly they don’t have a clue what is going on. The book Peak Everything by Richard Heinberg is a good example of the commonly held view, it shows many graphs of different resources which have become more abundantly available until now and will show a decline in the near future. In other words, all reality (the past) points towards increase and all subjective predictions (the future) points towards decrease. President Carter probably made his above statement based on an exactly similar looking graph, with the peak placed in 1978.
The problem with all these false predictions is the concept called paradigm. A paradigm can be defined as a point of reference with which the reality is experienced. When in 1900 oil flowed from the shallow earth, that was your reality. That oil could be extracted five thousand meters beneath the ocean floor, would’ve been impossible to realize. We are, in fact, constantly trapped within our paradigm, in which it is by definition impossible to see the solutions of tomorrow for the problems of today. Constantly we see the boundaries, the end of growth, and constantly we apparently do not see our historic ability to overcome those boundaries would we ever threaten to reach them. Because that is what has always happen, approach the boundary, market mechanisms explode the price of resources, remarkable creativity and ingenuity is used to overcome those boundaries, the paradigm is shifted and we see a new boundary on the horizon again.
This process is what gives us our intuition of Peak Resource and what makes it impossible to ever fully determine the absolute limits of resources of Earth, because the estimate is based on the limited knowledge of the now.
What does this all mean for the future? Technological progress improves faster than resource reserves diminish. This was the case when coal was our primary energy source, when wood was it and when flint was it. That is why the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones and the Oil Age will not end because we run out of oil. Through all paradigm shifts, electricity becomes ever cheaper, e.g. the price per kWh taking in account inflation, decreased by 95% in the 20th century. Metals have been cheapening for centuries and the commodity price index is down to 30% since 1845.
We have been underestimating human ingenuity and our problem solving abilities since the beginning of time and many voices can be heard today that problems appear insolvable. Now resource prices are anomalously high, due to the fact that Asia has linked up with the global market, sparking fears that resources will be too few. But also Asians will prove to be more problem solvers, than problem creators, just like the Western world and electricity and metals will become ever cheaper in the 21st century. Earth can provide ample, it is only lack of imagination and an acceptance of the reigning boundaries that blinds us.
Only one resource truly matters and that is the human mind.
Goklany, Indur M. The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives On a Cleaner Planet (2007)
The Economist, Feb 10th 2005
Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything