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Monday, October 21, 2013

UT Energy Students Debunk Modern Myths


Angela Kelechi Eluwa is a graduate of Geology from Nigeria, and is currently a Master of Science Student in the Energy and Earth Resources Department at UT Austin.

The human species has been growing exponentially since the World War II. Any population of living creatures is constrained by the availability of food, water, land, or other important resources. Once those resources are depleted, a population won't continue to grow exponentially. It will plateau, or decline, as a result of disease or malnutrition.

The major driver of technology is fossil power (energy/over time). The accumulation of fossil fuels is a slow process that took hundreds of millions of years, yet in just the last few hundred years we have depleted a large percentage of their total accessible endowment.

It can be argued that technological advancement has made a major positive impact on our living conditions like access to clean drinking water, toilet systems, antibiotics, etc. However, technology cannot advance without the use of Earth’s resources. Both renewable and conventional sources of energy are needed to help technology function and grow. Electricity, for example, can be generated on a global scale only with hydrocarbons or coal. The same dependence on hydrocarbons is true of metals; in fact the better types of ore are now becoming depleted, while those that remain can be processed only with modern machinery and require more coal and hydrocarbons for smelting and refining. In turn, without metals and electricity, there would be no means of extracting and processing hydrocarbons and coal.

The world’s deserts have an area of about 47 million of square kilometers, and the solar energy they receive annually is 300,000 EJ, which at a typical 11-percent electrical-conversion rate would result in 33,000 EJ.

Annual global energy consumption in 2010 was approximately 665 EJ. To meet the world’s present energy needs by using solar power, then, we would need an array (or an equivalent number of smaller ones) with a size of 665/33,000 x 47 million sq km, which is about 947,000 sq km - a machine the size of France. The production and maintenance of this array would require vast quantities of hydrocarbons, metals, and other materials -- a self-defeating process. Solar power will therefore do little to solve the world’s energy problems.

In the entire world there are 15,749,300 square kilometers of arable land, this is 11 percent of the world’s total land area. The present world population is over 7 billion. Dividing the human population by the area of arable land, we see that there are 444 people per square km of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about 4 people per hectare. Less than a third of the world’s 200-odd countries are actually within that ratio. In other words, too many people are already supported by non-mechanized agriculture.

With the inevitable depletion of the readily available biotic and abiotic components of the Earth's ecosystems, technology - and all it has to offer - will be available only at a cost, and in that case technology will become the “survival of the richest”. This may be described as the Earth check-mating the greed and excesses of humans. The exploding cost of living in the developing countries serves as a clear indicator.


Ryan Kelkar was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a senior student of Petroleum Engineering at UT Austin.

The author of the article “Over Population is Not a Problem” perpetuates the same cognitive dissonance that many people have towards the very large (pun intended) problem of over population. The author of the article makes the fatal flaw of assuming technological advances will always be capable of being ahead of the population reaching its carrying capacity. The flaw associated with this line of thinking is that these technological advances require the depletion of natural resources, and without these resources no technological advances will be able to save us.

For instance, the Haber-Bosch process uses natural gas (or coal in the old days) to create ammonia for fertilizer. This technological advancement had a dramatic effect on the carrying capacity of the earth, as agriculture was able to become more efficient and humans overwhelmed the natural nitrogen cycle by a factor of several. Some estimates are that more than half of the earth’s population would not exist today if it wasn’t for this technological advancement. The author of the article would like the reader to believe that the Haber-Bosch process is another example of a technological advancement staying a head of any impending population problems. However, the flaw in that line of thinking is that the Haber process, while ingenious, requires the use of a finite resource, natural gas. Without natural gas or coal and lots of water, the Haber-Bosch process simply can not work.  You may appreciate this circular reasoning of the author: Without fossil fuels and clean water, the Haber-Bosch process can not create fertilizer to sustain the population it itself created. Technological advances are not independent of the fact that they are dependent on resources from earth to sustain them.

The author also ignores the direct correlation that the access to cheap hydrocarbons has had on the earth’s population. At the beginning of the 20th century the global population was around 1.5 billion people and now the population is approximately 7.1 billion people. That is nearly a five-fold increase in the global population. If the author’s assumption that technological advances and human ingenuity alone were the reason for increasing the earth’s carrying capacity then why is it that only in the last century has the population increased so dramatically? Human ingenuity didn’t only begin at the start of the 20th century. The truth is that without the large-scale production of cheap hydrocarbons the population today would be much closer to what it was at the begging of the century (around 2 billion people).

All of this would be perfectly fine if we were able to produce cheap energy forever. Unfortunately, reality is rarely what we would like it to be. The reality is that hydrocarbons are a finite resource that takes millions of years to create, and according to some estimates we have already reached the peak oil production for the world in 2005 and it will only decrease into the future.

Our current population growth comes from humans taking out more and more loans from Mother Earth's natural resources. Nearly half of the people on earth today owe their existence to fossil fuels in some way. Unfortunately, our line of credit with Mother Earth is running out, and eventually she will request the repayment of our giant debt. 

Haber and Bosch, 29 july 1999. Web. 25 Sep 2013. .  
Clark, Josh. "Have We Reached Peak Oil." How Stuff Works, 2110 9 Decemnber 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.


Julio Leva is Ph.D. student of geology at UT Austin, where he came after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in his native Spain. He has lived for short periods of time in several other countries, giving him a good idea on how things change when you are in different places.

Technology, as a key for an improved future, is a recurring topic of science-fiction novels; this is so because history shows that we now have things, we could not have even imagined a generation ago. This experience gives Dr. Ellis the notion that there is no “environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future” since we will certainly find a technological breakthrough that will allow an unceasing expansion of human population, until, I guess, the earth is completely covered with human bodies.

But there are several limitations to the “increased land productivity.”  First, in typical crop plants[1] photosynthesis has an abysmal 1-2% efficiency, which limits the maximum amount of food we can produce. Second, modern farming relies on fertilizers. About 50% of our crops are due to commercial fertilizers[2], which are taking a big toll on our ecosystems. For example, about half of lakes in the U.S. are now eutrophic, meaning that they do not contain enough oxygen to support life. Our dependency on fertilizers, especially inorganic fertilizers, is staggering; this is a direct result of the increasing demand for food for an increasing world population. But in addition to nitrates from natural gas, inorganic fertilizers require large amounts of potash and phosphate rocks which are mined and concentrated. These are not “clean” activities. They require large amounts of energy. According to Dr. Ellis, this is not a problem if we use our technology to mitigate the pollution derived from fertilizer use. Unfortunately, with or without technology, mitigation of agricultural pollution consumes more energy  than the energy produced by growing crops in the first place.

Another issue that Dr. Ellis completely overlooks is wealth distribution. The claim that the earth system can sustain an ever-expanding population has to be met with this important question: Sustained with what living standard? Technology is wonderful; our phones are super-smart, our cars very fast, our planes convenient, our electric supply extremely reliable, and our TVs are gigantic. But how are those items in, let’s say, Kalo, a small village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country with the world’s lowest GDP[3]. Probably not that smart, fast, convenient, reliable or large; in fact these items are not there at all. This is because even today, with our wonderful advanced technology, it is impossible to give all of our toys to everyone in the world. We can look at conditions in Beijing, where people might have the same size TVs but their children must be kept indoors because of air pollution[4]. Is this the life that the planet is going to be able to sustain? Is it worth it?

A third problem is assuming, as Dr. Ellis does, that in fact we can obtain unlimited energy resources. This is lunacy. Humans have extracted energy from plants and animals, which ultimately are solar energy, with increasing efficiency, as Dr. Ellis points out. Then, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, humans switched to extracting the solar energy concealed in fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, and finally natural gas. The problem is that the amount of recoverable fossil fuels is finite. The rate at which we can extract them is limited, and more importantly it takes more and more energy in the form of fossil fuels to get new fossil fuels. It is not a never-ending, ever-expanding resource; this is an unavoidable fact no matter what technological marvels we might devise. But it may be possible to find a new source of energy; we have after all harnessed (to some extent) the power of the atom and we have built nuclear power plants. These future energy sources are again the stuff of science fiction. The truth is that nuclear power requires fissionable materials that are energetically costly to produce, nuclear fuel mining and refining is highly polluting and leaves behind radioactive waste, and so far we do not know what to do with this waste. It is piling up and becoming more and more expensive to keep in safe conditions. The energy that arrives on earth in the form of solar energy is finite and the amount of energy stored as fossil fuels is finite; these are, unfortunately, facts.

Another important reason why technology cannot support an ever-increasing population is that to create our technological marvels we need to extract materials from the environment and refine them, which will unavoidably create waste in the form of pollution. And no matter what technology we use, including recycling, carbon dioxide sequestration, or increased efficiency, waste materials will be produced. The larger the population of the world, the larger the amount of waste materials and their pernicious effects on our environment will be.

Finite energy and waste creation are two factors that technology cannot overcome. We are thus left with two options: (1) reduce our living standards and allow population to keep growing until living standards are so low that they cannot support life or (2) find a method of population control that results in a manageable population. Either way the result is the same: An ever-increasing population is impossible.

[1] http://www.life.illinois.edu/govindjee/whatisit.htm
[2] https://www.agronomy.org/publications/aj/abstracts/97/1/0001
[3] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2004rank.html
[4] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57563772/record-beijing-air-pollution-forces-warning-from-china-officials-to-keep-kids-indoors/

26 comments:

  1. These students are repeating the drastic errors and well-worn fallacies of the energy decline movement. They are mentioning peak oil, are pointing out the same tired errors about fertilizer, are misunderstanding the exponential funciton, are making points which sound like they're taken from utterly mistaken ecologists such as Odum or Hall or Costanza, and so on. Some of them are quoting Jared Diamond (!!!). Perhaps these students should start attending ASPO conferences. What's more, the students are using the same old logical fallacies which characterize that movement.

    Let me give an example: "the Haber process ... requires the use of a finite resource, natural gas. Without natural gas or coal and lots of water, the Haber-Bosch process simply can not work." And similar statements are repeated in some of the other essays here. Sadly, that claim is a basic factual error. It's trivially refutable, as is almost everything else which is unique to the energy decline movement. If those students had gone to wikipedia (which is not the best source of information, but it will do here) and had typed "haber bosch" and then searched for "natural gas" within that article, they would have found out right away, that this fundamental tenet of the energy decline movement (fertilizers require fossil fuels) is an obvious factual error.

    As another example, almost every single essay includes the mistaken claim that the human population is growing exponentially. Furthermore, almost all the essays incorrectly attribute to Ellis the belief that the population could grow exponentially forever, which is an obvious straw man, since Ellis claims nothing like that. Unfortunately, that kind of straw man thinking is a deeply-ingrained habit of mind among energy decline adherents, which sadly prevents them from understanding what they're reading.

    As another example, one student uses an exponential function to model a quantity which is not growing exponentially (human population) and then projects 1,500 years into the future. This technique would result in a figure which is off by a factor of approximately 10^12. Since the rate of growth of the population is _declining_, a correct calculation of population growth would yield an answer extremely different from the one presented here.

    What's more, not one of these students has written any valid objection to Ellis' article. I'm not saying that Ellis' article is correct. However, there are no valid objections to it here.

    This is all extremely distressing to me. I cringe whenever I hear these things. In my opinion, the energy decline/collapse movement is the worst kind of crackpot pseudoscience. It is drastically worse and less scientific than (say) young earth creationism. I cringe when I see yet another generation of students taking it up.

    Best,
    -Tom S

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    1. Tom,

      Thank you for your comment. Obviously you feel strongly about the crackpot pseudoscience the students are describing.

      For the sake of an example, let's concentrate on the Haber-Bosch process.

      The Haber Bosch process produces ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen. The nitrogen comes from air and the hydrogen comes from natural gas and water, previously from coal and water. http://www.chemguide.co.uk/physical/equilibria/haber.html

      This conversion is typically conducted at 15–25 MPa (2,200–3,600 psi) or 150–250 bar and between 300–550 deg C (572–1022 deg F), as the gases are passed over four beds of catalyst, with cooling between each pass so as to maintain a reasonable equilibrium constant. On each pass only about 15% conversion occurs, but any unreacted gases are recycled, and eventually an overall conversion of 97% is achieved.

      The steam reforming, shift conversion, carbon dioxide removal, and methanation steps each operate at absolute pressures of about 2.5–3.5 MPa (360–510 psi) or 25–35 bar, and the ammonia synthesis loop operates at absolute pressures ranging from 6–18 MPa (870–2,600 psi) or 60–180 bar, depending upon which proprietary process design is used.

      My Ph.D. thesis was on the optimization of multistage adiabatic reactors with interstage cooling, similar to those described here.

      The major source is methane from natural gas. The conversion, steam reforming, is conducted with air, which is deoxygenated by the combusting natural gas. Originally Bosch obtained hydrogen by the electrolysis of water. You could also obtain hydrogen from coal and water by water shift reaction.

      At all stages, the Haber Bosch process uses large amounts of fossil fuels outright (methane or coal for hydrogen), water, and energy from fossil fuels (mostly for compression to high pressures and nitrogen separation).

      Today, the Haber process produces half a billion tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. 3–5% of the world's natural gas production is consumed in the Haber process (~1–2% of the world's annual energy supply).

      In the U.S., for example, the natural nitrogen cycle is overwhelmed by humans by a factor of 2-3, with the resulting nitrate pollution, huge ammonia and NOx emissions into the atmosphere, and a anoxic dead zone in a part of the Gulf of Mexico of the size of Delaware.

      In my own calculations, the nitrogen fertilizers and antibiotics may be responsible for sustaining mostly everyone born after 1945.

      So in what sense were the students fatally wrong?

      These students are not a part of “an energy decline/collapse movement [that] is the worst kind of crackpot pseudoscience.”
      They are young engineers and scientists who calculate things and draw logical conclusions.

      By the way, if you count the energy costs of raw food production, transportation, processing, refrigeration, and packaging, at least 10% and as much as 20% of primary energy use in the U.S. and other developed countries goes to food production. In developing countries the result is similar, because each year 1/3 to 1/2 of their food supplies rots and is eaten by pests.

      Therefore, it is fair to say that when you eat food today, you also eat methane, crude oil and coal. And these are fossil fuels, whose rate of production must be finite on the finite planet Earth.

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    2. I need to correct the last paragraph of my reply. What I meant to say was that in developed countries you eat methane, crude oil and coal (9 to 19 parts), and food (1 part). In other words, you eat 9 to 19 calories of fossil fuels for each calorie of food. This is the true extent of dependence of our food system on fossil energy and astronomical quantities of water, which is increasingly in short supply worldwide.

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    3. Now on to the rate of population growth. Here are the computer fits of the exponential growth rates of human population for the last 360 years:

      Exponential population growth rate between 1650 and 1750 is 0.57%, population doubling is 123.4 years.

      Exponential population growth rate between 1750 and 1900 is 0.41%, population doubling is 171.7 years.
      Extrapolating this population growth until today gives 2.7 billion people. One could claim that this was the last period when humans did not have the Haber-Bosch process for nitrogen fertilizer, massive sanitation, and antibiotics.

      Exponential population growth rate between 1910 and 1950 is 0.97%, population doubling is 72.1 years.

      Exponential population growth rate between 1950 and 1980 is 1.90%, population doubling is 36.9 years.

      Exponential population growth rate between 1980 and 2013 is 1.40%, population doubling is 50.1 years.

      Therefore, when the student chose as an example a 2% exponential growth rate of human population, it was not unreasonable.

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  2. Tad,

    Thanks for your response.

    Everything you wrote about the production of nitrogen fertilizer was true, but it is very different from what the students were claiming, and for that matter what the energy decline/peak oil/collapse movements have claimed. What the students were claiming (and what is broadcast endlessly by the energy decline movement) is that nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels and could not possibly work without it, thereby setting a fixed limit. That claim is wrong. There may be limits to economic growth, but that is not one of them.

    Another issue is the repeated claim within these essays that fossil fuels are irreplaceable or special or necessary for civilization. This is one of the most common errors of the energy decline movement. This error is repeated incessantly within the movement (despite being entirely wrong) and has now spread to your students. Aside from the claim that fossil fuels are necessary for fertilizer, the students have also claimed that fossil fuels are essential for industrial civilization:

    "Once hydrocarbon production starts falling it will either have to be replaced or the population must decrease. The first option is impossible because of the unrivaled energy density of hydrocarbon resources."

    In fact, hydrocarbons do not have an unrivaled energy density (uranium is more than 1,000,000x denser), and anyway it wouldn't matter much if fossil fuels did have an unrivaled density, since less-dense sources are fine except for niche uses like jet airplanes or submarines. Most of the time, density is not the important factor when deciding which source of energy to use.

    Here is another example: "Many believe that the amount of power we receive from hydrocarbons can be replaced by renewable energies in the future with an increase in technology. The reason that this is not possible is due to the nature of renewable energies... Because the earth could only support around 2.2 billion with flow energy, the rest of the population is essentially living off the stock energy."

    The reason that the earth could only support 2.2 billion from flow energies is because pre-modern people lacked the technology to exploit any more than a miniscule fraction of the flow energies available. Pre-modern people were not able to build photovoltaic cells any more than they were able to build gas turbines.

    In fact, fossil fuels are a tiny, paltry source of power, compared to the solar power which constantly bombards the earth. Fossil fuels are used right now because they are easily transportable and are fairly cheap. Fossil fuels are not, and never were, particularly abundant.

    In fact, fossil fuels are not essential for any purpose whatsoever. Fossil fuels may be deeply ingrained within industrial civilization now, because they were the cheapest option first. However, the economy will abandon fossil fuels gradually, and will transition to other sources of energy, when the time is right. The economy has always transitioned between sources of energy, and is always transitioning--even right now. It has transitioned from one source of energy to another, and from one method of extraction to another, when the time was right.

    The most recent example of this was the deployment of fracking. There was not a single prominent person within the peak oil movement who anticipated that the economy would deploy fracking at the appropriate time. Quite the opposite, many or most of them believed strongly that civilization would promptly collapse around 2005, as I'm sure you recall. Instead, the economy simply moved to fracking which is the next-least expensive alternative.

    Best,
    -Tom S

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  3. Tad,

    As for the exponential growth of population. An exponential function is like this: f(x)=b^x where b is a constant. If b is not a constant or is declining, then it is not an exponential function by definition.

    Human population growth cannot be modeled using an exponential function. The rate of population growth is declining almost everywhere, which cannot be described using an exponential function. An exponential function would yield drastically incorrect results if extrapolated very far into the future.

    It appears that human population started growing because technological advancements and increasing wealth allowed more people to survive and procreate, but then, as people became wealthier still, they started having fewer children. We are now in the phase where the rate of population growth is declining almost everywhere. In the richest countries, population growth is negative. That is why many demographers think that the human population will level off around 10 billion. I am not saying that 10 billion people is desirable. However, the population is not growing exponentially.

    -Tom S

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    1. Tom, This is a serious subject and I will reply at length in a separate blog, hopefully on Sunday. Nothing, I repeat, nothing physical on this planet can grow exponentially. Physical means having units of mass, etc.

      However, we have created unit-less money and allowed it to grow exponentially without bounds through interest rate. Of course such growth is also impossible, but yet most of our economists and robust technologists say every day that (continuous) growth of national economy, cities, trade, etc. is the only desirable outcome and must be achieved at all costs.

      Thus, in our own confused thinking we espouse exponential growth without paying attention to how ridiculous we are and how damaging such attitude is.

      The students used exponential growth of human population as a reductio ad absurdum to show how ridiculous it is. They clearly understand the difference between science and economic idiocies we are fed every day in, say, the New York Times, every TV channel, and most of web posts.

      More to come...

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    2. Tad,

      Thanks for your response, but we appear to be talking past each other. I was not claiming that exponential growth could be continued forever, or that it's desirable. I was claiming that the human population is not, in fact, growing exponentially, and furthermore, the author of the original article made no such claims about the desirability of exponential growth.

      "However, we have created unit-less money and allowed it to grow exponentially without bounds through interest rate. Of course such growth is also impossible"

      That kind of exponential growth is actually possible.

      "The students used exponential growth of human population as a reductio ad absurdum to show how ridiculous it is."

      If this is true, then they were engaging in straw man argumentation or were not responding to the actual claims that Ellis made.

      By the way, I really appreciate that you do not censor viewpoints or evidence contrary to your own. In that regard you are very different from most other peak oil/energy decline moderators.

      Best,
      -Tom S

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  4. The degree of ignorance and prejudice exhibited in overpopulation and peak oil deniers can only be described as monumental. Thanks so much for your rebuttals above, Prof Patzek.

    (Gee, does your work schedule allow you to find time to write this blog?)

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  5. ***What the students were claiming (and what is broadcast endlessly by the energy decline movement) is that nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels and could not possibly work without it, thereby setting a fixed limit. That claim is wrong.***

    If you acknowledge that Patzek's account of the Haber-Bosch process is correct (which you did), then how could you say it is wrong to claim that nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels to produce?

    Perhaps you mean that an alternative method exists whereby we can use SOMETHING ELSE besides fossil fuels in producing nitrogen fertilizer. Well, there's nothing to it but that you spell out this special alternative method in detail the same way Prof Patzek has explained the Haber-Bosch process. Perhaps cite an article or something to support your claim. Whatever this alternative process uses will presumably have to be something literally INFINITE in supply, of course, so there'll be no limits. (Yeah, right.)

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    1. G Wang,

      "Well, there's nothing to it but that you spell out this special alternative method in detail the same way Prof Patzek has explained the Haber-Bosch process. Perhaps cite an article or something to support your claim."

      I already provided a reference whereby you can look up the haber bosch process in wikipedia and find that it does not require natural gas.

      The manufacture of fertilizer does not require fossil fuels. Natural gas is used as a hydrogen source and the hydrogen can be obtained by the electrolysis of water, using any source of electricity including renewables. This has already been done on a massive industrial scale.

      "Whatever this alternative process uses will presumably have to be something literally INFINITE in supply, of course, so there'll be no limits."

      Yikes!!! You are now repeating the core, fundamental error of the energy decline movement. When you encounter evidence or argumentation to the contrary, you attribute to the person presenting that evidence, the belief that the world is infinite or energy sources must be infinite. This tactic is absolutely standard in the energy decline movement, and is used by energy decline adherents almost every time someone presents evidence or argumentation which contradicts their badly mistaken views.

      At present, I am writing an essay about this tactic, which is one of the most interesting features of the energy decline movement. This tactic began in Colin Campbell's seminal paper in the early 2000s in which he presented his own views, and then claimed that the only possible alternative view (and the view held by economists) was that fossil fuels were infinite. Since that time, the tactic has been taken up by almost all energy decline adherents and is an absolutely standard part of their discourse.

      I believe this tactic is why the energy decline movement can survive, despite decades of consistently and drastically failed predictions, when other doomsday movements usually die out when their predictions fail. If the only possible alternative to energy decline theory is believing that the world is infinite, then energy decline theory must be right, no matter how many times its predictions have failed. Their failed predictions must just be errors of timing, they suppose, because the only alternative view they consider (infinite earth) is obviously wrong.

      Of course, nobody ever really claims that fossil fuels are infinite or anything similar, with the possible exception of a guy from the 1980s named Julian Simon (but even he wasn't consistent about it). Nor does anyone claim that we can grow to infinity, or that there are no limits, etc (except when people make nice-sounding rhetorical points such as "there are no limits to human potential" etc).

      The tactic of attributing this belief in infinite resources to others, is a combination of the "straw man" and "false dichotomy" fallacies.

      Even though the world is finite, the energy decline movement is still entirely wrong about almost all of their doctrines. I don't believe that movement has come up with a single claim which is both non-trivial and correct. ALL of it is wrong, except for trivial claims such as "the world is finite" or "oil extraction must peak some day" which were obvious before the energy decline movement came along.

      -Tom S

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  6. ***In fact, hydrocarbons do not have an unrivaled energy density (uranium is more than 1,000,000x denser)***

    So if you pour so much liquid uranium into your car in place of hydrocarbon fuel, the car will run one million times the distance? LOL.

    My point is that uranium as a source of energy works in a wholly different way from fossil fuels, so this comparison of energy density is inappropriate. You need a huge and extremely complicated machine -- otherwise known as a nuclear reactor -- to tap (safely) into the energy found in uranium, Not so with fossil fuels. And fission reactors in fact have limited operational lifetimes. (Breeder reactors? Name me one fully operational breeder reactor.)

    Another big catch here is that no nuclear reactor has ever been built using nuclear energy itself; they all need fossil fuels to build.

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    1. G Wang,

      You are repeating all of the fundamental errors of the energy decline movement.

      "So if you pour so much liquid uranium into your car in place of hydrocarbon fuel, the car will run one million times the distance? LOL"

      That is not at all what I said. For that matter, it's not even related to what I said. You are engaging in straw man argumentation and not responding at all to what I wrote. That tactic is fallacious. Furthermore, that tactic is extremely common within the energy decline movement and is practically habitual for most of them by now. I am not trying to paint you with the same brush, but I hope you don't adopt any of the mistaken methods of that movement.

      I was not claiming that cars run off uranium. I was saying that the frequent doctrine found in energy decline circles that fossil fuels have an "unrivaled energy density" is clearly wrong by a factor of about 1,000,000. Although cars cannot run on uranium, the claim is still completely and drastically wrong, by a factor of about 1,000,000. (Incidentally, ships and trains could easily run on uranium).

      Even if we ignore nuclear sources of energy, fossil fuels have an energy density which is roughly similar to other chemical fuels which can be manufactured, such as Anhydrous Ammonia. Not that energy density is the most important thing, in most circumstances. Even batteries in cars, which have a miniscule energy density, end up adding less than a thousand pounds to the weight of the car and impose distance limitations between recharging, which surely are annoying limitations but which are not fundamental to civilization.

      "Another big catch here is that no nuclear reactor has ever been built using nuclear energy itself; they all need fossil fuels to build."

      The second statement does not follow in any way from the first. Nuclear reactors do not necessarily require fossil fuels to build. They are built using fossil fuels _at present_ because each new technology for energy extraction is built using the _last_ one.

      (In fact, in countries such as France, nuclear power plants are indeed manufactured from nuclear energy _to some extent_. Many of the manufacturing processes for new nuclear reactors depend upon electricity which is already derived from uranium there).

      "Solar panels? CSP? Yes, they can help, but HOW MUCH of all that solar power can we realistically tap into?"

      We can realistically tap into vastly more solar power than we obtain from fossil fuels at present.

      "Kindly list the different forms or sources of energy the (global?) economy has transitioned through. Since the Industrial Revolution, that is."

      The industrial revolution was initially powered by biofuels, because the early steam engines in the UK, and most very early steamships, were powered by wood. Early electricity grids were usually powered by hydroelectric dams until there wasn't enough of that. The global economy has transitioned to coal, then to oil, then to natural gas, and then to nuclear (for some countries, such as France). There have also been repeated transitions between methods of extraction, which is what determines the difficulty of the transition.

      -Tom S

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    2. ***I was not claiming that cars run off uranium.***

      Neither was I. You misread me. I was merely pointing out that, granting uranium may indeed be that much more energy-dense (which I'm not sure of), the way we have to procure this energy from uranium nevertheless places it in a rather different category from fossil fuels. You can't have a portable fission reactor which you can carry anywhere with you as an energy source. Compare petroleum. Which means that, for all the high energy density uranium may possess, it will still not do as much good as petroleum because it will not be possible for various special needs of modern industrial society to be met by the energy from uranium.

      ***The second statement does not follow in any way from the first. Nuclear reactors do not necessarily require fossil fuels to build. They are built using fossil fuels _at present_ because each new technology for energy extraction is built using the _last_ one.***

      I'll be more convinced of this when I see or hear of the required hardware for tapping into alternative energy sources being built (and maintained!) strictly without the need for fossil fuels. And done so at a scale great enough to keep modern industrial society running. Until I see that, what you've said remains a maybe.

      ***We can realistically tap into vastly more solar power than we obtain from fossil fuels at present.***

      Really? Then why aren't we doing it yet? (And you're saying we can do it without fossil fuels?) Here again, I'll believe what you say when I see it happen, and until then what you say remains again a mere maybe.

      ***The global economy has transitioned to coal, then to oil, then to natural gas, and then to nuclear (for some countries, such as France).***

      As Julitros would have pointed out, what you mentioned strictly speaking don't count as transitions. A transition takes place when a new energy source completely or almost completely (say 90%) takes the place of another, but in all of the above 'transitions' you mentioned the new energy source has merely supplemented the old one, and often not by much. Even the 'transition' I mentioned (coal to oil) turned out not to be a transition at all, as Julitros kindly pointed out to me.

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  7. ***In fact, fossil fuels are a tiny, paltry source of power, compared to the solar power which constantly bombards the earth***

    True, but until you have the means to TAP into all that solar power, sorry, mate, fossil fuels remain your best option.

    Solar panels? CSP? Yes, they can help, but HOW MUCH of all that solar power can we realistically tap into? And can we built all those solar panels etc using solar energy ITSELF? Or do we still need fossil fuels to build them?

    ***However, the economy will abandon fossil fuels gradually, and will transition to other sources of energy, when the time is right. The economy has always transitioned between sources of energy... The most recent example of this was the deployment of fracking.***

    Kindly list the different forms or sources of energy the (global?) economy has transitioned through. Since the Industrial Revolution, that is. The only example I can think of is from coal to oil -- except they're BOTH fossil fuels.

    Does fracking count as a new energy source, or merely a new means of tapping into an old energy source? I think the latter is the case. And fracking's got all sorts of problems of its own, but I won't elaborate here.

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  8. G Wang,

    You are simply not responding to any of the points I made, or for that matter, any of the points which Ellis made in his original article. Instead, you are engaging in the typical response of most energy decline adherents when presented with evidence, namely: name-calling with no content.

    It should have been easy for you to point out any error which Ellis or I have made, if there is any such error and if our prejudice is so obvious.

    The "peak oil" theory as presented by Colin Campbell et al, and which posited that global oil production would peak around 2005 and follow a bell-shaped curve, is already obviously refuted, beyond any serious doubt. Thus "peak oil deniers" are being entirely reasonable and are analogous to (say) "young earth creationism deniers" or similar things. None of this denies that peak oil will happen some day, but the methods from the peak oil movement for predicting when that will occur, what the decline rate will be, and what the consequences will be for civilization, are entirely incorrect.

    I caution you strongly against reacting to challenges to your point of view by engaging in personal attacks and nothing else. If you do that in general, you will never learn anything.

    -Tom S

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  9. ...Let me cut away the constant errors of the energy decline movement, and start again for a moment. Let me describe what I think is the case, and you can point out any errors you detect in it.

    1) Fossil fuels are ultimately not essential for any purpose. They are not needed to manufacture fertilizer, generate electricity, or run industrial civilization. Fossil fuels have obvious, proven substitutes which are already available, for every single usage of them. Even the rare cases which really require a chemical fuel (like tractors or airplanes) could use other chemical fuels such as anhydrous ammonia which are easily manufactured from renewable energy using already-known processes.

    2) It is ultimately not necessary to have fossil fuels to manufacture solar cells or concentrating solar plants. We manufacture each new mechanism of extracting and transporting energy using the PRIOR energy source.

    3) A market economy transitions from one source of energy to another as the original one becomes comparatively more expensive. This is because the decision to switch fuels or types of energy is a basic asset allocation problem which is carried out easily already by relevant decision-makers within industry. This kind of transition has already happened repeatedly (natural gas was not even used 60 years ago, and fracking was rarely used 10 years ago).

    4) Fossil fuels are not abundant sources of energy and never were. They are miniscule, paltry sources of power compared to solar power. They do not have unrivaled energy density.

    5) Population and industrial production are not growing exponentially, and will not grow exponentially. Instead, they usually grow according to a logistic curve or something similar.

    6) We do not face any imminent, inevitable decline in industrial civilization due to declining energy supplies. We will face declines in energy supplies when the Sun gradually dims and then explodes, billions of years from now. Of course there will be all kinds of disasters in the interim, but little or no inevitable decline of energy available to us in the interim.

    7) There is far more time than is needed for industrial civilization to transition to other sources of energy as fossil fuels decline. It could be done in approximately 30 years, but we have centuries, which is longer than industrial civilization has existed in most places.

    8) Fossil fuels did not cause industrial civilization. Industrialization was already underway long before the usage of fossil fuels for industrial purposes began. Industrial civilization _transitioned_ to fossil fuels because they were the next best alternative as biofuels in Britain were being exhausted and another fuel was needed for steam engines.

    Industrial civilization was caused by scientific and engineering advancement in the prior century, and also capitalism which caused capital accumulation and investment. Those things caused the extraction of fossil fuels, not the other way around.

    9) Global fossil fuel extraction does not follow a Hubbert curve or anything similar.

    (cont'd)...

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    1. ***Fossil fuels are ultimately not essential for any purpose. They are not needed to manufacture fertilizer, generate electricity, or run industrial civilization. Fossil fuels have obvious, proven substitutes which are already available, for every single usage of them.***

      Granting for the purpose of argument that there may indeed be such substitutes (and that the infrastructure we have erected over the past few decades, which all runs on fossil fuels, will happily run on those substitutes without any hassle, so we won't have to endure the misery of having to erect a whole new set of hardware for using the substitutes), are they available in the AMOUNTS required to keep modern industrial society running? It was estimated that America alone consumed 6.87 BILLION barrels of oil in 2011. (And you say we don't really need fossil fuels? Yeah, right.)

      ***We do not face any imminent, inevitable decline in industrial civilization due to declining energy supplies.***

      I'll believe that if I see Detroit restored to the level of prosperity it enjoyed 50 years ago. And if I see the American, British, Japanese and European economies clear their (gargantuan) debts completely, interest and all. And if I see at least half of the world's 7 billion having their standards of living raised to that of the average American. Until I see that, this claim of yours has no credibility in my book.

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  10. ...In short, virtually everything within the energy decline movement is completely wrong. Also, their other doctrines such as declining EROEI, declining net energy, etc, are mathematically incorrect and trivially refutable. This explains why all their predictions have failed, year after year, for decades. Most of their doctrines are OBVIOUSLY wrong. Also, the doctrines found in such sources as "Our Finite Earth", "The Oil Drum", and so on, are usually incorrect in every single point.

    Now that we have cleared away the errors, let's investigate why fossil fuels are used at all. Why are fossil fuels used so extensively in various industrial processes and particularly in transportation, where they are absolutely dominant?

    11) Fossil fuels are used because they are the cheapest source of energy which is easily transported and stockpiled. That is the main reason fossil fuels are used. Renewable power is already much cheaper and vastly more abundant, but it's not found where and when we need it. The cost of devices to store and transport renewable power (such as batteries) is much more expensive than the power itself. That is the main reason why fossil fuels are used. There are also other, less important reasons why they're used, but I won't dwell on them here because this post is already overlong.

    The real problem we face is totally different from what energy decline adherents think. The real problem is that the market economy will not transition to alternatives such as renewables until the technologies for storing renewable power (such as batteries or synthetic fuels) become cheaper than using fossil fuels. That will not happen for many decades. In the mean time, we will have emitted far too much CO2 into the atmosphere, with severe consequences. THAT is the problem, not energy decline.

    Best,
    -Tom S

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  11. As one of the students of the “crackpot pseudoscience” essays above I want to point out and clarify a few of things.

    First, I completely agree with Tom; name-calling should not be used in this blog. There is enough of that in Fox and MSNBC. Let’s keep it civil. That is unfortunately as far I can agree with Tom.

    Second, there is not such a thing as resource substitution. G Wang points out the substitution of coal by oil, unfortunately this has not occurred. Currently (as of 2009) produces about 24.6 ExaJoules of energy per year in the USA (Source: U.S. DOE Energy Information Agency, www.eia.doe.gov) which is about 22% of the energy consumed. Granted this is less than the 41.5 EJ from petroleum or the 30.3 EJ of natural gas, but our economy and way of life is dependent on coal. We have substituted as the main energy source but that does not mean that we still do not need it. In fact most of petroleum goes to transportation and a good deal of natural gas to fertilizers and industrial processes, while most of coal goes to electricity generation. I think it is very important for everyone to know that coal, the old dirty coal that apparently we have replaced for other fuels, is in fact responsible for almost 40% of all the electricity generated in the US. Even wood burning is still a source of energy for home heating, and its usage has not declined, but it has risen. The only energetic resource we have substituted and abandoned is whale oil, which was used for oil lamp. So, except for whale oil, resource substitution is a fallacy.

    Third, peak oil has indeed occurred. Maybe it has not happened in the apocalyptic sort of way that most “peak oil” theorist described and not with a marked Gaussian like curve, but it has indeed happened.
    This is more obvious in the US production, since oil production started sooner here than in the rest of the world. Between 1860 and 1940 the oil production in the US grew with a fairly constant yearly rate of 9%. Then from 1940 until 1971 the yearly increase was of approximately 2.7%. 1971 is a very important year that is the year when US oil production peaked. It was not a full on peak with an exponential decline after as many people envision the famous “peak oil” scenario. Around that time ARCO (later BP) and Humble Oil (later EXXON) discovered the Prudhoe Bay oil field in Alaska, this was a giant field, twice as big as the second largest oil field in the US. Prudhoe Bay was able to maintain a flat line although slightly declining US production for a while, but its production peaked in 1988 and now it is going down at an 11% yearly rate. Then we went to the deep Gulf of Mexico, which peaked production in 2003, and the US oil production was still maintained with a small decline. And now the Eagle Ford and Bakken shales are being fracked and the production has shown its first small rise in the last 40 years. But it is still far from what it once was. One can argue that we can keep finding to replace the declining Prudhoe Bay and the declining Gulf of Mexico, and you better hope we keep finding new fields. But for the last 40 years we have been barely able to maintain the production constant, so forget about keep growing the production.
    The world production is following the same trend. Norwegian oil fields hit the maximum production in 2001, and now they are moving to the artic to try to maintain a flat-line production. The UK peaked production in 1985, and was able to maintain production until 1998. Now the UK produces about a third of what produced in 1998. Nigerian production peaked in 2005. Russian and Middle East productions are still rising, but for the last decade this rise has been almost nothing, they will peak very soon.
    This is in fact a peak oil scenario, not an apocalyptic bell-shaped curve, but a peak oil nonetheless. (I would be more than happy if someone can prove me wrong though!!)

    And last, come on! This can be worse than creationism! At least I try to give arguments.

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    1. Julitros,

      "And last, come on! This can be worse than creationism! At least I try to give arguments."

      You certainly are not worse than young-earth creationists. Your arguments are reasonable and informed.

      I was referring to the energy decline movement and its doctrines. That movement is typified by such sources as: The Oil Drum (a prominent website), and most of its main authors; Life After The Oil Crash; Colin Campbell's book "The Coming Global Oil Crisis"; dieoff.org; William Catton; the works of a very small group of ecologists from the 1970s; and many other sources. That movement claims that net energy supplies for civilization must decline as a matter of thermodynamics, that civilization must decline or collapse as a result, and various other things.

      That movement is based upon doctrines which are provably wrong and which have a 100% failure rate of prediction over decades, including repeated incorrect predictions about the collapse of civilization. For that reason, I believe that the energy decline movement (and definitely not you) is worse than young earth creationism. Constant failure of prediction implies that there _must_ be something wrong with it.

      I was very concerned because some (but not all) of the essays were repeating incorrect ideas taken from that movement. The authors of those essays may not be aware of the long history of failed predictions implied by those ideas. The energy decline movement is not straightforward about its history or its record of prediction. Usually, when one of its predictions fails (which is very often), the prediction is simply forgotten about within the movement and never mentioned again. This gives a very misleading impression to anyone who encounters the movement for the first time. This is especially true because the movement represents itself as science or based upon science, and its conclusions as being implied by the laws of thermodynamics (some of them claim that). In fact, the movement and its doctrines are the opposite of science, are wrong in almost every regard, and have a long history of constantly failed predictions. I wish to make sure those things are known before anyone relies upon that movement as a source of information.

      -Tom S

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    2. Julitros,

      "Second, there is not such a thing as resource substitution. G Wang points out the substitution of coal by oil, unfortunately this has not occurred... So, except for whale oil, resource substitution is a fallacy."

      This is incorrect, in my opinion. Resource substitution has happened frequently and is a regular part of a market economy. One recent example was the substitution of aluminum for copper in ethernet cables. Copper became too expensive, so the industry substituted aluminum instead. These days, ethernet cables usually contain very little copper. And there are countless other examples.

      Industrial civilization has substituted new fuels for old ones in various uses. One example is gas for heating, which used to be town gas (derived from coal) almost everywhere until the 1950s and which is natural gas almost everywhere now. Trains and ships used to have steam turbines powered by coal until the 1960s.

      Substitution is happening now in the United States because of the rapid reduction in natural gas prices. As a result, natural gas is being used increasingly for the generation of electricity.

      Granted, the entire global industrial civilization has never switched completely off of any category of fossil fuels (such as coal). This is because no category of fossil fuels has ever begun declining yet, much less been exhausted, so there would be no need to substitute. This does not mean that substitution is a fallacy. It means that the time is not right for that particular substitution to occur. (When I say "the time is not right", I mean it's not right according to economic considerations such as cost. The time is certainly right and is overdue if we wish to avoid serious ecological damage). Anyway, the substitution (when it happens) will almost certainly occur over more than a century, unfortunately, so none of us will live to see the complete transition away from fossil fuels. This does not mean that the transition isn't occurring, but energy transitions tend to be fairly gradual. For example, each of the energy transitions in marine transportation (sail, to coal, to oil) took more than 60 years.

      There have been some countries which have switched almost entirely off of fossil fuels for electricity generation. Countries such as France, Sweden, and Japan had extremely inadequate supplies of fossil fuels to begin with and decided as a political matter to switch to nuclear power during the 1970s and 80s, rather than continuing to import fossil fuels for that purpose. In the case of France, it took about 30 years to transition.

      Even if no resource substitution had ever occurred, it still wouldn't imply that substitution is a fallacy. There had never been any substitution from one fossil fuel to another in 1910. Almost everything industrial (heating, manufacturing, electricity production, transportation) was powered by coal only. However, there were substitutions to come for various purposes.

      Substitution would be a fallacy only if civilization had repeatedly failed to carry out substitutions as older sources were exhausted, or if substitution were impossible. Neither of those is the case.

      -Tom S

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  12. Dear Mr October,

    If one may ask, who's the one who hasn't been responding to the other's points? You haven't answered any of the questions I posed to you. (Yet?)As for engaging in personal attacks, it would seem to me the pot's calling the kettle black here. Certainly comparing those who are convinced there are limits to growth to Young Earth Creationists doesn't seem to me a very nice compliment.

    There are several respectable academicians around who have explained convincingly why the problem of Peak Oil is far from over or even nonexistent. You, on the other hand, have yet to respond to my questions above. Perhaps that's because you really have no answer?

    Correct me if I'm mistaken, but your basic view seems to me as follows: those warning of limits to our supplies of various resources,are wrong for the reason that if one type of resource (say OIL) runs out, we can always switch to another, and then still another ad infinitum. To me this is like saying that, if we screw up this planet of ours big time, no problem, we can always migrate to another earth-like planet, then another and so on. Well, granting there may be large numbers of earth-like planets around, do we have the means to locate them from where we are, and the means to travel to them? Likewise, granting there may be all sorts of different energy sources around, can we tap into them as easily as we tap into fossil fuels, if at all? (And here's the big catch: can we set up the infrastructure for tapping into them without using fossil fuels? If not, then how independent of fossil fuels have we become?)

    As I've mentioned, AFAIK there has only been one major trasition in recent history from one energy source to another, namely from coal to oil. Perhaps before that one could consider another: that from biomass to coal. That gives us only two transitions. Can we reasonably believe on the basis of just these two transitions that there are plenty more awaiting us?

    Actually I couldn't care less what you want to believe -- so long as you happen to live on another planet. Because then if you screw up your planet big time by following your beliefs, you suffer the consequences and I won't have to. Except I'll have to, since my butt's resting on the same planet as yours.

    Is this fair to us 'Young Earth Creationists' (as you describe us), I ask you?

    If it turns out you're right, it will cause no one any harm for us to acknowledge the limits to growth by changing our ways of life -- living off the grid, growing our own food, forming ecovillages etc.

    But what if WE're right?

    My two cents. Take or leave them.

    -- Wang.

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    1. G Wang:

      "You haven't answered any of the questions I posed to you. (Yet?) You, on the other hand, have yet to respond to my questions above. Perhaps that's because you really have no answer?"

      I have actually responded to your points, by posting quotations from your posts and then responding with relevant content below. I think the problem here might be that our posts are appearing in a staggered fashion.

      "hose warning of limits to our supplies of various resources,are wrong for the reason that if one type of resource (say OIL) runs out, we can always switch to another, and then still another ad infinitum"

      One of my basic points is that global civilization does not face exhaustion of any irreplaceable resources essential for civilization. As a fortunate coincidence, there are easy substitutes for every exhaustible resource we use now, with the sole exception of Phosphorous. Furthermore, the market economy has transitioned and will transition, to resources which are practically inexhaustible, when the time is right.

      I am not claiming that resources are infinite. I am claiming that we would hit other limits long before we'd run out of (say) energy, aluminum, ingredients for cement, or other materials essential for civilization. As a result, we are not "running out of resources", or running out of energy in general, over any time period. This planet will be destroyed for other reasons first.

      "it will cause no one any harm for us to acknowledge the limits to growth by changing our ways of life -- living off the grid, growing our own food, forming ecovillages etc."

      Those are the solutions recommended by the energy decline movement, and also by some environmentalists. In my opinion, those are exactly wrong and are the opposite of what we should do.

      If we wish to limit environmental damage, we should move to dense urban areas and live in a 5+ story buildings with shared walls. We should transition towards the grid to a greater extent, and not live off-grid. We should use electrified public transit such as subways and trolley-buses. We should expand the usage of nuclear power and solar power, and contract the usage of fossil fuels. We should not grow our own food--quite the opposite--we should live in dense urban areas and rely upon food grown elsewhere.

      Urban dwellers who rely more upon nuclear power and public transit (such as the residents of Paris, France) cause less than 20% of the CO2 emissions of a typical American suburban dweller.

      There is no way everyone could grow their own food locally without fertilizer in eco-villages. I know this is not exactly what you were claiming, but it is put forth as an ideal by some environmentalists. It's implausible, and it would be catastrophic to the environment if we tried it.

      -Tom S

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  13. I just want to add a couple thoughts:

    If the human population is in fact not growing exponentially, that is good news (though I'd like to see more convincing evidence -- perhaps a few peer-reviewed articles). But we still have seven billion mouths to feed, mind you.

    And if it turns out an amazing breakthrough tomorrow enables us to tap into vast reserves of some new energy source, I think at best it will just buy us some precious time (say three or four decades). Time to change our current way of life by abandoning the whole insane ideology of endless growth while also humanely reducing our numbers through birth control. My fear, though, is that we'll just be lulled into thinking our problems are solved for good so we can continue our current way of life... until we reach the point where the new energy source in turn starts to get depleted.

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    1. G Wang,

      "And if it turns out an amazing breakthrough tomorrow enables us to tap into vast reserves of some new energy source, I think at best it will just buy us some precious time (say three or four decades)."

      Concentrating solar thermal power is available now, in quantities vastly greater than we will ever need or exploit. Using concentrated solar plants, we can produce far more power than at present, continuously for billions of years until the Sun explodes. We do not require any technological advancements (beyond what have already occurred) to exploit solar power. Furthermore, our civilization has far more time than is required to transition to concentraing solar from fossil fuels, before fossil fuels are exhausted.

      For better or for worse, industrial civilization is not declining because of resource exhaustion.

      The question is how much damage we do to the environment. We must limit environmental damage. That will not be achieved by assuming decline or preparing for it, in my opinion.

      -Tom S

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