Some readers have expressed concern (through e-mail) at the slower rate of postings in QE of late. Of course I had some down time with my travels this summer. And I've just finished work on a chapter for a book deriving from the conference I attended in June: Science, Wisdom, and the Future. My paper on the evolution of sapience will be appearing in the forthcoming book, I presume of the same name. Along with all of that I am preparing for my journey to Syracuse NY to study the ins-and-outs of energy return on energy investment (EROI or EROEI) with Charlie Hall and his students at SUNY-ESF (co-located on the campus of Syracuse U.) I plan to leave the Tacoma, WA area on the 9th and arrive in Syracuse on or around the 14th. I'll be making a stop in Ohio to visit my friend, Professor Emeritus Ken Smail, at Kenyon College, who is my go-to guy on overpopulation and population reduction (by humane means, of course).
While in Syracuse (in the Fall) I plan to do a little cruising around New England, especially when the leaves are in full color. There are a few other folks in that neck of the woods I would like to visit and talk to. If any of you are going to be in the Northeast during the Fall (to early Dec. I think), and want to arrange a meeting, let me know. I was really sorry to have missed meeting some folks in Austria/Germany this summer when I was there. If I had thought to let readers know my itinerary we could have made better plans to link up.
The central purpose of this sabbatical is to learn all I can about the EROI phenomenon and what it means for the global economy in light of the peaking of oil production. I've covered the subject extensively here, at least conceptually. Now it's time to take a harder look at the science with some real pros and see if there is any way to firm up my assessment of what it will take to solve the energy crisis (see Steps Toward an Energy Solution). If the current thinking (both my own and a growing number of others interested in biophysical economic) is right, that the combination of peak oil and what looks like a drastic decline in EROI is strangling the 'real' economy (the one that actually makes stuff), then we suspect we will be able to explain more scientifically the pressures that are driving the debt unwinding and crash of various financial bubbles. Many economists have tried to 'explain' what is happening in terms of "irrational exuberance", "greed", lack of regulation, overheated consumption-based economy, etc. And, of course, all of these have played a factor. But many of us now feel that these are as much symptoms as causes. Each played a part in building up the pressure, in blowing up the balloon. But the impetus that really enabled and pushed all of these factors was the historical increases in the energy available to do work. As long as energy flow was increasing, and it had always done so historically, we got used to the idea of borrowing from the future, expected real work, as opposed to borrowing from savings to fund new activity. We had good reason to believe that there would always be more work accomplished in the future, and hence more excess wealth (capital) created, so that we could always pay back the loans, with interest. That was because that had always been the case with a few exceptions during times of energy supply switch-over (e.g. from wood to coal). These transitions took time and there was a dip in the net energy compared with the built-up demand for goods. But each new source of energy provided a greater EROI than the one before, so naturally, the systems was able to recover and keep growing in the long run.
With the peak of oil production we may have hit a snag that we might not be able to overcome any time soon. Oil is the most useful form of fossil fuel (natural gas has a higher BTU per unit weight value, but is basically only useful as a direct fuel or source of hydrogen as a feedstock). It is extremely energy dense and portable. No other known naturally occurring fuel can beat the energy potential of oil. And we are starting to find the point of diminishing returns on our efforts to extract the stuff from deep underground. This time the transition may not be to a higher EROI source (neither solar, nor wind, and probably even nuclear can compete with oil on this count), but to a disbursed portfolio of low EROI alternatives, hopefully truly renewable (i.e., must be self-sustaining). This may be the first time in human history that we face contraction of economic activity for a very long time to come (see my essay The End of Growth: The Beginning of Contraction for some thoughts on what this means for the population problem)..
All of this is scientifically-based hypothesizing at this point. We have some informative good data (Charlie's EROI on oil is the benchmark) that provides a strong qualitative argument for the above. If I were a betting man, I would lay odds at ten to one that this framework is the correct one and that the science will bear this out. But it will take more science to reduce the uncertainty in a formal way. In these blogs I have exercised the precautionary principle by stressing what I think is happening based on the data and models we have so-far developed. But it will take much more digging to uncover all or most of the complex interconnections and measure their values to increase our scientific confidence that this energy constriction is what is happening to us. I sincerely believe this sabbatical will help me get a handle on this. I just hope we get some clarity in time to do something about it.
My other motive has more to do with what should we do if this model is right? In light of what seems to be an accelerating threat from climate change impacts, how do we respond to the threat of global disasters? This question occupies a considerable amount of my mind time. As I have alluded to in other blogs, I don't think we really will have an option that could be characterized as 'saving mankind'. The notion that we can feasibly keep a significant proportion of the world population from dying early and most likely painful deaths is looking more and more like a receding vision. There for a while, when Obama spoke of sacrifice at his inaugural address, I had a glimmer of hope that with real leadership in Washington, we might yet come to our collective senses in time to minimize the pain and suffering that looks more and more like the most likely scenario. I did publish a caveat (the acid test) saying, in effect, if Obama fails to provide that leadership then there doesn't appear to be much hope at all.
And sadly I watch his administration dealing with the financial crisis (with bailouts), the housing crisis (with bailouts), and generally proposing to throw money, which we don't have, at everything. The one thing he seems to be trying to do is completely AVOID sacrifice. As a result, especially I think of propping up the financial superstructure (house of cards), the actual crash could end up being far worse than it might have been. If, as the data strongly suggests, peak oil has arrived and EROI declines have driven average net energy flows downward then we are going to be faced with sacrifices that will be unavoidable. How bad it gets will depend on how quickly society responds by eliminating discretionary and frivolous spending (Americans have responded to the current jobs market downturn with a major boost in savings rates, which ironically, the economists point out will slow recovery because our consumer economy is based largely on people spending and NOT saving!), and how quickly we move on energy conservation projects that have provable improvements in net energy savings. It will also depend on how willing people are to share and help one another out. Will workers be willing to give up a proportion of their wages, to taxes or simply lower salaries, in order to cover their jobless neighbors? Will they be willing to reduce their work hours and do job sharing to spread the sacrifice? Or will we see the ugly side of a spoiled citizenry? Will we see force applied, by gangs of angry people, by governments? I wish I knew.
What we learn from the science of energy, however, will still apply whatever the aftermath might be. At some point society can try again to build a functional civilization and, hopefully with lessons learned, one that is in balance with the rest of the Ecos. I, and others who are pursuing this race to better understanding, will continue to hope we can influence policy makers in time to avoid total disaster (assuming, of course that we have it right and the neoclassical economists have missed the boat). But my sense of prudence tells me it would be well to consider what to do to recover in the worst case. We will need knowledge, and understanding, and wisdom (see my blog, What is knowledge: the noetic hierarchy?) to build a new civilization based on better principles of social organization and humanity's aspirations in light of the physical realities of a finite world (see series: Sapient Governance)
So for the next several weeks I suspect my posts will be a bit more sparse than usual. On the other hand, while I'm driving east I should have lots of time to think and may find myself spending my evenings in motels with Internet connection, feverishly trying to pound out something that seemed important while driving across North Dakota! Either way I do have several drafts I'm working on and will get back to once settled in Syracuse. The systems science series is about to go into real world examples of systems and systems principles at work. Since I teach computer science, guess what one of the main examples of a Mech-System will be????