Archives for posts with tag: goklany

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  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


The human mind is our fundamental resource

– J.F.Kennedy, 20-02-1961

 After the last Ice Age rising sea levels flooded the land bridge between Tasmania and Australia and effectively separated the islanders from the mainland. When Abel Tasman discovered the island 8000 years later, five thousand Aborigines were living there. Isolated, they had not only missed the progress of the mainland, but they had collectively lost knowledge. They did not use bone tools anymore, but made their tools of stone once again and they did not wear clothes, but rubbed their bodies with seal fat to keep warm. A collective of five thousand people was unable to maintain their level of knowledge, let alone be able to move it forward: technological regression.


Malthusian Catastrophe, AKA This time it’s different

In 1798 Thomas Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population and the Malthusian school of thought was born; population growth is exponential, Earth’s resources are limited and one of these days this equation will run amuck evoking a catastrophe of enormous proportions. Since then every era has had his envisioned limits and its intellectuals seeing the end of progress because of them. In 1865 William Jevons predicted in The Coal Question Peak Coal. He foresaw the end of progress and stated “I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.” Paul Ehrlich visioned starvation a hundred years later, stating “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” (from: Population Bomb, 1971). England had Peak Coal, but progress did not stop there and Paul Ehrlich’s book just got its first print and the Green Revolution was well underway, the percentage of malnourished people shrank from 37% in 1970 to 17% in 2007 even as the population of the World doubled.

Nowadays, concern about overpopulation is the intellectual norm. Supposedly the Earth is not able to sustain this many people, let alone an even bigger population. And if Peak Oil will not be our end, surely the use of that oil and the carbon emitted will. But the opposite was true in the past, the larger the population, the better we all had it. What makes this time different? Why would the envisioned limits really be the constraint this time?


The more, the merrier

Since Malthus published his book the world population showed a seven fold increase. In the meantime quality of life made huge strides forward. In Indur Goklany’s excellent Improving State of the World a wealth of data is used to show that the human condition improved tremendously the last few centuries. In the face of all the doomsayers’ predictions nearly every human related measurable parameter has improved and is in better shape than ever. Healthy longevity, food availability, child mortality, maternal mortality, mobility, illiteracy, poverty, child labour, amount of worked hours, suffrage and freedom; all showed massive worldwide improvements. Recently even air and water quality have been improving in the developed world. Also forests and nature reserves have been growing, with many animals flourishing again, this in contrast with the popular opinion that economic growth necessarily comes at the cost of the environment. In the meanwhile, prices of resources become ever cheaper or put differently, we use an ever smaller portion of our income to buy energy, food, water and metals.


Limits of planet Earth

The limits of planet Earth are not absolute; they are solely constraint by the reigning paradigm. Wood, peat, coal, but also oxes, horses, wind and water energy (in the Middle Ages) were all used in their paradigm to their absolute maximum, than they were substituted by a new energy source through innovation and progress continued robustly. By definition one cannot see beyond your paradigm, which provides a sense of finiteness to the people living in the paradigm. This feeling is totally unjustified when looking at the facts. Of all energy circulating on planet Earth, we only use a tiny fraction. In fact, if we compare the World’s energy consumption with the energy the Earth receives from the sun alone, we only use 0.01%, or put differently, each year the Earth receives twice as much energy from the sun as all fossil and uranium reserves put together. It is only a lack of imagination that this energy is not up for grabs.

At this moment the paradigm shift is happening, the solar energy sector is the fastest growing energy sector in the world, doubling output every two years, for thirty five years already, in twenty more years the sun will provide all our energy needs.


Why should we want more people?

Man is a problem solver. We are intrinsically wired to want to solve problems, from puzzles to mathematical problems to curing diseases. The bigger the population the more we can create, build, innovate and solve. The more we can specialize and use our brains as efficiently as possible for ever more complex problems. But also, the more we are, the more music, movies and art we will make. The more Einsteins, Mozarts and Peles we will come to know.

All major problems mankind is facing, problems like cancer, aids, food, water and energy supply and global warming, we will solve sooner with more people than with less. This is because the limits are not defined by the Earth yet, but only by our creativity. In its essence every new person is primarily a problem solver, not a problem. That’s why up to now the bigger the population, the better we all have it and that’s why we are allowed  to embrace every new human being with rejoice and not need to fear a growing population. Like the average human being in existence, a new baby will probably be a net problem solver, an enrichment to the lives surrounding it and a contributor to the World’s wealth. In other words, a welcome addition to team human.


The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones

There are caves in the Netherlands, tens of meters beneath the ground, kilometres long where my ancestors in the Stone Age were digging for pieces of flint. Possibly they were also afraid that they would run out of their essential resource, their way of making fire and tools, trapped as they were in their paradigm. Also they would not be able to see the solutions of tomorrow for the problems of today and also they could not presume there was only one resource fundamental for our progress. That resource is the most complex object in the known universe. It is the ultimate resource: our brains and their  potential for creativity is infinite.


Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. (1971).

 Goklany, Indur M. The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives On a Cleaner Planet (2007)

 Jevons, William Stanley ,The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1865)

 Malthus, Thomas R. An Essay On The Principle Of Population (1798)

 Ridley, Matt, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010)