Our techno-optimists continue to make a major category mistake: when responding to concerns about peak oil production, inevitably they reply that "technology" will come to the rescue. We're just a few gadgets away from the Jetsons and Knight Rider. We'll think of something.
The thought seems not to have occurred to them that technology is not, and cannot create energy (I guess they were absent on the day Mr. Verdigris covered the Laws of Thermodynamics in Physics 101). Yes, perhaps technology can marginally assist in the retrieval and more efficient utilization of various energy forms, but its cheerleaders wholly overlook the essential fact that it is not finally technology that extracts energy, but energy that extracts energy. We've been lucky (or damned unlucky) the past 150 years to have an energy source that required almost no energy to extract. Put a straw in the ground and watch it bubble up. What we're finding now is NOT that we lack energy - there's plenty of various forms of energy in the world - but that it's damned expensive to collect and utilize it. Which is to say, we need more to get less. That's when we start complaining about how expensive everything is...
To put an even finer point on it: technology does not create energy; energy powers technology. Take energy out of the equation, and technology is the main character in a Jules Verne novel. Leonardo DaVinci knew how to design an airplane; he just didn't have fossil fuels to bring plans to life. We will continue to know how to fly airplanes; we just won't have enough fuel to do so. (I was in the Quad Cities of Illinois over the weekend - a very good time was had by all - and it was disclosed in the Rock Island Argus, newspaper of record, that the direct flight from Moline to Las Vegas was slated to cease operation. It is increasingly too expensive for airlines to fly to smaller airports, and increasingly too expensive for people to gamble when most discretionary income goes toward filling gas tanks. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Las Vegas is a city with no future. Ditto Phoenix and Albuquerque, among others).
Case in point: it's getting difficult to get valuable metals out of the ground (among them uranium - the substance that's supposed to replace petroleum) because of energy shortages. According to this story on Bloomberg, "Runaway growth in emerging markets that's squeezing world oil supplies has led to electricity shortages, cutting output of commodities needed for ever-rising demand. Platinum jumped to a record in January after mines in South Africa closed for five days as utilities rationed power. Cobalt gained 58 percent in the past year as production growth in the Democratic Republic of Congo was limited by electricity supply. 'There will be a sustained level of risk from power shortages in the commodities markets,' said Michael Lewis, London-based global head of commodities research at Deutsche Bank AG. `We are pricing bigger supply losses as a result.'" I.e., less energy means less ability to get stuff we want. Including energy.
My strong suspicion is that we are going to find that much of what we regard as our technological prowess was actually our ability to burn fuel ever more creatively. Technology has been a particularly glitzy form of energy use, but little else. We suppose that technology will create us more energy, when it's actually using it up at astounding rates. We will find the inexorable laws of "EROEI" - energy returned on energy invested - will limit how much technology we can utilize when energy becomes constrained. We've got lots of fancy devices for extracting minerals and metals from the earth, but those technologies are being "underutilized" because of energy shortages. We've got lots of airplanes to carry people from Moline to Las Vegas, but mobility is getting too expensive. We've got lots of tractors - some with GPS systems, I learned at the John Deere pavilion in Moline (since the acreage of industrial farms is so immense that farmers need to be guided by satellite to their houses at night), but not enough fertilizer to spread on the crops (<==Read this link. And buy seeds).
Earth to techno-optimists: technology isn't going to make something out of nothing - especially when you need to plug it in to do anything. It's helping bring on the shortages it won't solve. Time to wake up and smell the humus.