Wednesday, May 7, 2008

We'll Think Up Something

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.


Anonymous said...

Don't remember where, but someone else posted something similar to the Whipple article in regards to the demise of short-hop flights. Good thing we have such a great rail system in place; I live in Savannah GA and to get to Atlanta-30 min by plane, 4 hours by car- I would have to go to D.C. or Raleigh first. I imagine it is like that in most areas outside of the northeast.

Anonymous said...

Why the snark if a farmer who has to spend all day driving straight lines gets a computer to do the routine work?

Anonymous said...

Another great post. It has been my long-standing hunch that the emphasis on technology and machinery actually is detrimental to the capacity for historical creativity: which has to do with the imagination, the humus - being humble - receptive...entirely different qualities from the desire to "control," so conspicuous a feature of modernity. When we become humble we will become historically creative and continue man's destiny as a being in history. I explore these themes in my novel, "After the Crash."

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Some counterpoints:

1) If we ever cracked the fusion game, we would have free energy. This isn't too pie-in-the-sky; the sun does it every day.

2) We still have lots of coal.

3) We could cut 50% of our energy consumption by mere reogranization; it wouldn't effect GDP, merely control some of our more wasteful actions.

4) Fertilizer can be made from coal, so we have no fear here.

But it does drive me nuts to hear people so confident in "science." I swear, modern man has more faith in new discoveries and scientists than the most wacked out pagan sacrificing children to the rain god.

You know what you need to do a post on (if you haven't already): what the public response will be when it becomes clear that science cannot replace oil with another form of cheap energy. Will they crucify their god?

Anonymous said...

"Technology has been a particularly glitzy form of energy use, but little else."

Care to back that claim up with some data? Beginning with the computer you use for this blog, to the amazing use of technology to heal human beings suffering from illness and pain, to the ability to build safer and more user friendly homes (does your house have a dishwasher? washing machine? a hot-water heater?) seems like technology does a lot every day to increase human flourishing and well-being.

As for our so-called energy crisis, as usual, the market and technology will provide a solution. I suggest you check out the latest "Atlantic Monthly" which has an excellent article by James Fallows about China's efforts to deal with their environmental problems. In short, the article focuses on the manufacture of cement, which used to waste lots and lots of energy and thanks to a technological fix, no longer does so. I predict we will continue to devise better and better means of using the energy at our disposal and figuring out how to harness renewable energy in a cost-effective (i.e. profitable) manner. My prediction is based on our track record for the past 200+ years...what is your prediction of doom and gloom based on? Perhaps you should get together with Paul Ehrlich and propose a new "Julian Simon" style bet to those of us who believe in the power of markets and human ingenuity?

Anonymous said...

well, liquid fuels of several sources (from garbage, from coal, from algae) are being talked about in the $5-7 gallon range. People haven't bothered up to now because petroleum has been so cheap. These fuels will be pricier than we're used to, but not wildly so. We'll shift to car pools more. Some electric cars. Some of the really profligate stuff we've been doing will get too expensive, but I don't expect the future will be unrecognizable. dave.s.

Patrick Deneen said...

Or, maybe this will work:

Anonymous said...

"... technology is not, and cannot create energy ..."

Pardon me? What do you think energy comes from, if not technology? Oil itself is only available to us as an energy supply because we have the technological ability to harvest it. The ancient Romans were well aware of oil in Arabia: they called it "bitumen", and thought of it as a fine laxative. For them, that was all it was.

Have you really never heard of fission nuclear power plants, which drive 80% of France's electrical power grid?

We have real problems, but energy production is not actually one of them. Technology is the only reason we have any energy supplies other than human muscle in the first place. (Yes, this even applies to farm animals: before the invention of the horse collar, horses couldn't be used to pull burdens effectively. We humans have been "thinking up something" for a long time.)

--Erich Schwarz

Patrick Deneen said...

Erich -
Wow. So, just to clarify, we used technology to create petroleum and uranium, the sun and wind? I wasn't arguing that technology can't harness and exploit energy - of course it does - but that technology rests on an energy platform to do so. The more energy, the more technology can do. In a world of constrained energy, it will do less.

Joseph said...

Out here in the real world, the uranium and thorium in a ton of granite has the energy of fifty tons of coal.

The only thing wrong with the claim that "we will think of something" is the tense.

Leonard said...

The more energy, the more technology can do. In a world of constrained energy, it will do less.

But energy is not constrained, at least not in any meaningful way, compared to our current use. The sun puts out 1000x as much as we use, and that's just the bit that hits the Earth. (Link to wiki.) There's another billion or so times enough solar energy out in space, if we can get to it economically. It is exactly the harnessing of all that "free" energy that is our problem, and it will require technology.

Yes, it has been great to have a cheap, concentrated form of energy around. And our ride off of fossils is not over yet -- there's plenty more left, just requiring better tech to exploit. Renewable energy is not going to exceed non for the foreseeable future. But even when it does, perhaps 40 years from now, it's not the end of the world. It's an adjustment, is all, and one mediated by... (ba boom!) technology.

Patrick Deneen said...

When the price gets high enough, much will be "economical." It will just be more expensive, and we won't be able to do as much - not nearly as much. We wil not run our current civilization on free sunlight. It's too diffuse - try running a Caterpillar earth mover on solar.

But, lest we bicker about "who killed who" (oops, Monty Python moment there), I mean, whether technology will "save" us, ultimately the more important question is should it? Should we continue on our path, even if it turns out we are able?

I am doubtful that we can continue, given the signs of the times - not only in the energy area (only the most obvious), but topsoil, water, toxicity, waste, debt, etc. What remains most interesting to me is that when presented with evidence that we are rapaciously willing to exploit everything for our comfort and to the detriment of future generations, even to the point of depletion and exhaustion, our automatic response is "how can we keep it going"? There is no moment of hesitation, doubt, reflection, that perhaps we ought not to. We have truly lost our capacity for self-governance. I think our ruling philosophy will remain, "because we can." We should not lose sight that this lie at the heart of the philosophies of 20th century totalitarianism - the divination of the human will.

Lest "conservatives" think this philosophy can be limited to the realm of the earth's exploitation (the one area in which it appears acceptable to celebrate the dominion of the human will), we need only look around and see dominion of the will extends necessarily throughout the culture. Embryos, biotechnical "enhancement," abortion on demand, a pornographic popular culture - more evidence that because we can, we will. We do not govern our technology; our appetites govern us, and ultimately our employment of that technology. Our so-called conservatives had best wake up to this fact. Or at least stop calling themselves conservative.

Joseph said...

Speaking as a pro-life libertarian, I'd like to point out that this "exploitation" is what happens when unaborted fetuses grow up.