We are entering an Age of Limits. Our resource base is declining, our environment becomes more degraded every year, and economic problems are endemic. These are Predicaments, not Problems (Problems have solutions, Predicaments do not). We need a new theology to meet these frightening challenges.
One of the themes of this site is that resources are finite in quantity, hence, once they are gone, they are gone. They will not be replaced on a human time scale. The normal laws of supply and demand do not work because there is new supply available. The logic of the economics for a resource such as crude oil goes as follows.
We extract the easy pickings, the low-hanging fruit first. So the first oil wells were drilled in places such as East Texas. The oil was easy to find and extract, and it could be moved to the refineries quickly and at low cost. (The picture shows one of these wells. The plume of oil is from a blowout — representing a serious loss of control and the potential for a major fire.)
As the first wells are depleted they are replaced with sources that are more difficult and expensive to develop. (In technical terms there is a decline in ERoEI, Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Companies have to spend more and more of energy simply finding and extracting new sources of energy.) We go from an easily-drilled field in East Texas to the phenomenally expensive offshore platforms that are being built now.
Based on the laws of supply and demand, the price of oil should steadily increase — the demand remains the same but the cost of getting the crude oil to the refineries has gone up substantially.
If the price goes high enough, demand will fall, so the price will also fall. But the price trend will always be upward because it is always going to cost more to find and extract the next barrel of oil. There is no new supply of low-cost oil available to us.
But over the course of the last six years or so that’s not how things have actually worked out.
Consider the following article, which is representative of many others like it.
For background, here is a chart showing the price of West Texas Crude over the last ten years.
The chart shows that,
There was a steady and rapid increase in price up to the year 2008 — the year of economic recession.
The price fell, but soon recovered.
In 2013/14 the price crashed.
Since then it has increased, but is still not at as high as it has been.
In other words, there are ups and downs, but there does not appear to be any systemic move upwards. What happened?
The standard response to this question is that the development of tight oil prospects in the United States increased the amount of oil on the market, and so the price went down.
This new supply can be seen in the following chart. The red line is production in the United States of conventional oil. It peaked around the year 1970 and has been falling steadily ever since. The green line shows the amount of tight oil produced. It can be seen that this new supply has been sufficient to return overall U.S. production to 1970 levels.
Actually, it’s more complicated than this.
The following additional factors need to be considered.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was very concerned about the potential dominance of the United States in the world’s oil markets, so they intentionally reduced the price of their crude so as to drive the tight oil projects out of business. This was a purely political move.
At these prices, tight oil production is not profitable. In fact, it relies on the continued investment of speculative capital — people who wish to get in on the ground floor of this new business area.
High oil prices tend to discourage general economic activity. So the prices go down in response.
Some analysts predict that by the year 2020 the tight oil business will have to show it can be profitable. Otherwise the investors will move out. But the only way that the industry can be profitable is to have prices that are well north of $100 per barrel.
If this analysis is correct then, looking back on what happened, it may be concluded that the tight oil business was no more than a temporary interruption on the trend toward higher oil prices, or a slower economy at current prices.
. . . let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
When Jesus was brought before Pilate for judgment he said,
. . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.
To which Pilate replies,
“What is truth?”
In our book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits (publication date not yet announced) we work on developing a theology that is appropriate for our times. The first step in such a theology is, we suggest, to be absolutely truthful as to what is going on.
Age of Limits issues are complex, with lots of moving parts and feedback loops. So, from a technical point of view, it is not always easy to determine exactly what is the truth when we consider climate, resources, finance and population. In addition, any statement that explains what is going on has to be hedged with the fact that there is always scientific and statistical uncertainty. But, from a practical point of view, the truth as to what is going on is reasonably clear, and, we argue, it is the responsibility of Christians to learn that truth and then to abide by the consequences of that truth.
But this statement begs questions such as:
How does one determine what is true?
How do we distinguish between objective truth and faith?
Which experts do we trust?
Where are their hidden agendas?
What is meant by scientific uncertainty?
How can two people who are intellectually honest, and who have done their homework, reach different conclusions?
The title of the book is taken from Augustine’s City of God. But he wrote other books which are pertinent to our discussion; one of these is De Mendacio (On Lying). Augustine stressed the need for Christians to be utterly truthful. He did not even allow for white lies.
In our times, when we are surrounded by lies in all forms, it is vital, in my opinion, for us to follow Augustine’s leadership and to place an equal importance of understanding the truth as to what is really going on around us.
It is not only Augustine who stressed the need to tell the truth. Secular writers who have studied the trajectory of our society have reached same conclusions.
Telling the truth is fundamentally important to use as a species. If an individual cannot be trusted, we can learn to ignore that person. But if our whole system is based on misleading us, then our society cannot function.
Today’s level of division of labor, insofar as it imbues suspicion that much communication is being done for ulterior purposes, weakens or destroys that ability to rely on a network of information sources.
. . .
Destroy trust in verbal inputs and you destroy a core attribute of human nature . . . you allow yourself to become less human.
If Christians are to be completely honest, then we face the question that Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus, “What is truth?” It forces us to address questions such as,
How does one determine what is true?
How do we distinguish between objective truth and faith?
Which experts do we trust?
Where are their hidden agendas?
What is meant by scientific uncertainty?
How can two people who are intellectually honest, and who have done their homework, reach different conclusions?
The answer to the final question is not all that hard. If two people thoroughly research a very complex topic such as global warming it almost certain that they will agree that it is happening, and that it is largely caused by human activity. They may reach different answers to specific questions such as the nature of the end point or the speed with which events will unfold. In other word, it will not be a case of denial or non-denial; the differences will be merely a matter of degree.
In the context of this book we will consider the following areas of truth.
Real things and objects represent truth. Oil flowing out of an oil well is an objective fact. A melting ice sheet is a fact. Both facts are true.
Measurements represent truth. If the global temperatures, as measured at meteorological stations around the world, show a steady increase, then it is true that temperatures have been rising. We can also accept as true that sea levels are rising.
Some scientific theories can be considered to be true. For example, the laws of thermodynamics cannot be challenged, at least for the purposes of this book. It is possible that someone, one day will find out how to “beat” those laws. But, for now, we can take them as true. Perpetual motion machines are not possible.
People can speak the truth, at least as they see it. If a person states that he does not accept that global warming exists, and if that person has also conducted extensive, honest research, then he is speaking the truth.
Jesus often spoke in parables. In doing so he was challenging us to work out our own understanding of truth.
But there is another type of truth. Not only do we need to consider “the facts of the case”, we also need to understand the manner in which we, as individuals, react to those facts. It is all too common for a person to accept the facts to do with global warming, say, but then to move on as if they have just learned something interesting, but not all that consequential. They have not internalized their intellectual knowledge — maybe because they sense that doing so would open up a whole range of emotional issues that they would rather not consider.
For this reason, it is vitally important not to criticize “deniers”. We can and should, of course, challenge their statements and reasoning; but we need to realize that their responses to the scary issues that we face are, in fact, quite sensible. make sense within their own personal context.
It is easy to become frustrated, and even angry, with those who choose to deny what is going on around us.
You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.
But it is important not to disparage those who deny that the changes we talk about are taking place. Age of Limits issues are challenging and frightening — we all wish that the world could go on as normal. We all choose to deny reality whenever we can. Some of the ways in which we do so are discussed in this section.
I reiterate, many people who deny that the world is changing believe that they have a legitimate point of view — it would be irresponsible not to take that point of view seriously. Even if their arguments are specious, we do need to recognize that their doubts are often based on emotions such as fear for the future of their families. They need to be heard.
In future posts we will explore the issue of truth in an Age of Limits. We will also look at the different types of denial, and discuss why people respond in the way they do. For now, it might be useful to consider the nature of Pilate’s question. We know very little about the man. Was he:
Genuinely interested in having a philosophical and theological discussion to do with nature of truth?
Trying to conduct a fair trial and to establish justice?
Trying to look good in front of the Jewish authorities?
Challenging those authorities because they had not made a formal accusation?
Clearly, the pursuit of truth is difficult. Which is one reason not to brush off “deniers” without thought or discussion.
One of the sections of my book A New City of God is to do with the nature of denial and how we should work with people who irrationally deny climate change. In that section I suggest that we treat all opinions with respect, and not criticize people who hold views that fly in the face of reason and consensus expert opinion. Yet here is a venerable and highly respected publication — the New York Times — publishing an editorial by Paul Krugman entitled The Depravity of Climate Change Denial. He is writing about the response to the National Climate Assessment report, written by members of thirteen government agencies.
He pulls no punches, particularly when it comes to politicians who dance around obvious truths. Krugman writes,
. . . the Trump administration and its allies in Congress will, of course, ignore this analysis. Denying climate change, no matter what the evidence, has become a core Republican principle. And it’s worth trying to understand both how that happened and the sheer depravity involved in being a denialist at this point.
Wait, isn’t depravity too strong a term? Aren’t people allowed to disagree with conventional wisdom, even if that wisdom is supported by overwhelming scientific consensus?
Yes, they are — as long as their arguments are made in good faith. But there are almost no good-faith climate-change deniers. And denying science for profit, political advantage or ego satisfaction is not O.K.; when failure to act on the science may have terrible consequences, denial is, as I said, depraved.
Businesses with a financial interest in confusing the public — in this case, fossil-fuel companies — are prime movers. As far as I can tell, every one of the handful of well-known scientists who have expressed climate skepticism has received large sums of money from these companies or from dark money conduits . . .
And these motives matter. If important players opposed climate action out of good-faith disagreement with the science, that would be a shame but not a sin, calling for better efforts at persuasion. As it is, however, climate denial is rooted in greed, opportunism, and ego. And opposing action for those reasons is a sin.
Indeed, it’s depravity, on a scale that makes cancer denial seem trivial . . .climate change isn’t just killing people; it may well kill civilization. Trying to confuse the public about that is evil on a whole different level. Don’t some of these people have children?
And let’s be clear . . . Republicans don’t just have bad ideas; at this point, they are, necessarily, bad people.
One of the reasons that I started writing this blog, and later the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits, was that I had been studying the Hebrew Bible as part of the Education for Ministry (EfM) program. (This is a four year program. Students attend a weekly class every week and carry out the necessary background reading.) The first year curriculum covers the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament. My class colleagues had heard me talk about how the Peak Oil / Climate Change situation creates opportunities for fresh Christian leadership, so they suggested that I become a modern-day prophet. Taking on such a role seemed to be rather presumptuous. Nevertheless, for better or for worse, I decided to give it a go.
Use of the word “prophet” prompted me to take a look at these older prophets. I came up with the following thoughts.
They were not fortune tellers — they make specific predictions about the future — they merely observed what was going on around them and drew some obvious conclusions. For example, in their day three superpowers — Egypt, Assyria and Babylon — were fighting, at different times, for regional dominance. Their armies often clashed in and around the lands occupied by the Hebrews. Therefore one thing was certain — Judah and its capital Jerusalem were going to be in harm’s way. Any other reasonably informed person living at the time would have reached the same conclusion. The prophets were not revealing a secret.
From a material point of view, there was little that the Hebrew people could do to resist their larger and more powerful enemies. Solomon did achieve a brief period of independence, but that was unusual. And, as we know, Jesus often made reference to the superpower of his time: Rome.
The prophets did not offer a way out of the predicaments that they faced. They understood that, by and large, physical resistance was not going to work. We hear the same from Jesus, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17).
But they did call upon the Hebrew people to return to their basic religious principles; their response was spiritual, not physical or material. As I will discuss in future posts, and in the book A New City of God, I suggest that our response to the Age of Limits crises that we face will have to be largely spiritual. After Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.
Nevertheless — surprise, surprise — the prophets were ignored.
The analogy with what is taking place in our time is striking. Taking the above points one by one:
Few of those studying the looming energy and environmental crises make specific predictions as to exactly what will happen or what the timing is likely to be. Like Paul, we can only “see through a glass darkly”. But they do “prophesy” that our modern-day predicaments will have catastrophic consequences. Moreover, anyone who spends just a few hours reading sensible research materials will arrive at generally the same conclusions as the modern-day “prophets”. It’s all fairly obvious. It does not require special insights.
Like the peoples of those ancient times, we also face predicaments.
There are no solutions because predicaments don’t have solutions. When faced with a predicament, all that we can do is respond and adapt. We cannot make the predicament go away.
As I will discuss in future posts, and in the book A New City of God, I suggest that our response to the Age of Limits crises that we face will have to be largely spiritual. After Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.
Modern prophets are also ignored and their prophecies are denied. The number of people willing to face up to the nature of our current predicaments is small and the number who are taking action in their personal lives is smaller still.
Of the Hebrew prophets, probably the best known is Jeremiah. He not only authored the book with his name, but may also have written Kings and Lamentations.
He was called to his prophetic ministry in 626 BCE. He prophesied that Jerusalem would be destroyed because the people of Israel had been unfaithful to the laws of the covenant and had forsaken the true God by worshiping Baal. He prophesied that his people would face famine, and then be taken as slaves to a foreign land.
It is interesting to note that Jeremiah did not want to be a prophet, nor did he believe that he had the skills to be one. But we are told that the Lord touched his lips, and told him to go out and prophesy. To do this he had to,
Not be afraid,
Stand up and speak, and
Go where he was sent.
Jeremiah was persecuted for his work and was condemned to death. Nevertheless, he survived, and, somewhat ironically, was well treated by the Babylonians — the people who fulfilled his prophecy as to his people being captured.
Nevertheless, he was persistent; he had to speak.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in.
Within the Christian community there is considerable concern to do with environmental changes — particularly global warming. This is all to the good. But one of the themes of this site, and of my book A New City of God, is that no single issue such as global warming can be handled by itself. Each is part of a complex system involving many feedback loops — many of which are difficult understand, or even to identify .
The Venn Diagram below provides a very high level view of some of the elements that interact with one another. They are resource availability, the environment and the economics behind all this. Behind these three elements lies the issue of population.
With regard to oil and the crucial role that it plays in our economy let’s take a look at the work of a remarkable man: Dr. M. King Hubbert.
M. King Hubbert
Over the centuries various publications have been seminal, i.e., they planted seeds for a new way of thinking about the world. An example of such a paper is that written by Galileo Galilei in the year 1632 in which he explained the workings of the solar system. Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia of 1687 was equally important. It provided a mathematical framework for the scientific world that was good until the early 20th century until the introduction of the theory of relativity.
Future historians may well look back on Dr. Hubbert’s 1956 paper Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels (Hubbert 1956) as being of equal importance. Hubbert identified many of the issues that oil plays with respect to the Age of Limits.
• He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.
• He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves. His interest was not so much in oil production rates as in the rate at which we are finding new reserves, and whether the discoveries compensate for the oil that is being used (they don’t).
• He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how the production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.
• He understood the fact that exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.
• He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.
So, who was this potentially famous author? (A sign of his fame is that in at least one fictional story set in the future, Hubbert’s name is used as a swear word. The people in the story say, “By Hubbert!” in the way that we would say “By God!”)
Hubbert was a senior technical advisor to the Shell Oil Company. Therefore he was part of the oil industry establishment — he was not some critic “crying in the wilderness”. In the year 1956 he presented the paper that we have just discussed to the American Petroleum Institute. In it he projected that the production of oil from conventional wells in the United States would follow the trajectory in the first of the two curves shown below (they are reproduced directly from his paper).
The first curve shows that, when a new source of oil is found, further exploration in the same area leads to increased production. Eventually, however, production eventually peaks and then declines.
Hubbert predicted that the production of conventional oil in the United States would peak around the year 1970. His prediction was remarkably accurate, in fact he nailed it. (Since his time other sources such as tight oil and deepwater offshore oil have been developed. But his prediction to do with land-based, conventional oil was and remains correct.)
The following are some quotations from his seminal paper.
The evolution of our knowledge of petroleum since Colonel Drake’s discovery of oil . . nearly a century ago, resembles in many striking respects the evolutions of knowledge of world geography . . .
This opening passage is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that Dr. King was not just a “dry scientist”. His imagery is unusual for a paper of this type. Second, by comparing the petroleum world with geographical charts he is suggesting that there are continents (giant fields), large islands (medium fields) and small islands (small fields). The continents were discovered early on and no more remain to be discovered. All that is left are the small islands/oil fields.
The fossil fuels . . . have all had their origin from plants and animals . . . during the last 500 million years. Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest.
. . . world production of crude oil increased at a rate of 7 per cent per year, with the output doubling every 10 years . . . How many periods of doubling can be sustained before the production rate would reach astronomical magnitudes? No finite resource can sustain for longer than a brief period such a rate of growth of production; therefore, although production rates tend initially to increase exponentially, physical limits prevent their continuing to do so. This rapid rate of growth for the production curves make them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained.
These two passages summarize the concept of Peak Oil in a nutshell.
It was not a big intellectual leap to move from “Peak Oil in the United States” to “Peak Oil Worldwide”. Indeed, we can develop Hubbert curves for other kinds of resources such as rare earths needed to make electronic equipment, or even fish in the sea. (Resources such as fish and forests are renewable, but we are depleting them so quickly they are not actually being renewed quickly enough; hence the Hubbert Curve can be applied to them.)
Not only was his technical analysis remarkably insightful, he had the courage of his convictions. These were the days of “Happy Motoring” — his message was incomprehensible to the culture of his time. And he talked about these issues against the will of his employer (Shell Oil). He continued to speak out until the end of his life.
The chart that Hubbert published actually has two curves. The one on the left, the one that we have discussed, is to do with production of oil within a given area. The curve on the right is to do with nuclear power. He was writing in the early 1950s when the nuclear power industry was just getting started; society at the time was full of optimism to do with this new source of energy that would be “too cheap to meter”. Hubbert anticipated a smooth transition from fossil fuel power to nuclear power.
We now know that this particular prediction was a miss. Nuclear power makes up less than 10% of the world’s electricity production, and it is unlikely to increase much for the following reasons:
The problems (actually predicaments) to do with nuclear waste are intractable.
The capital costs associated with nuclear power make the business uneconomic and dependent on government subsidies.
Energy sources are only fungible to a limited degree. Considering just road transportation, it is impractical to consider that the world’s motor fleet can be converted to electricity in just a few years. (Any attempt to do so would require a huge consumption of fossil fuels.)
Supplies of uranium and other nuclear source materials are subject to their own Hubbert Curve.
Peak Oil Update
Hubbert published his ground-breaking work three generations ago. That’s a long time ago. So how has his work held up?
In March 2018 Ugo Bardi published Peak Oil, 20 years later. In the paper he looks as the forecasts of Hubbert and his successors. Of course, those predictions were not completely accurate — no one can predict the future, except in broad outline. We will probably look at this paper in greater detail in future posts. For now, a key statement is,
Overall, we can say that, even though the role of non-conventional oil sources was not correctly evaluated and the date of the peak missed at the global level, the Hubbert theory produced correct predictions and, in general, a valuable warning of difficulties to come. So, there never were compelling reasons based on historical data to dismiss the peak oil idea as wrong or untenable. Nevertheless, this is what happened.
This week the wild fires in California are making headlines. Not only has the death toll reached 71 (and that number will presumably go up), but the quality of life in much of California has become miserable. The New York Times article Not Burned, but Suffocated highlights the struggles of many people in the Bay Area as they try to go about their normal lives.
Aside from the problems to do with the smoke itself, the following items in the article caught my attention.
Because it is to hard to breathe outside, people use their cars, even “to do simple, nearby errands”.
The most effective air masks are sold out.
Doctors are seeing physiological weaknesses in people are inflamed.
People are driving three hours to spend one day outdoors.
They are buying plane tickets — to anywhere else.
These items all illustrated the fact that Age of Limits issues are complex, and involve unexpected feedback loops and examples of the Law of Unintended Consequences..
The article concludes with the following sobering statement.
We’ve been told for a generation to expect this kind of creeping devastation. Still, it is incredibly troubling to feel it arriving, to hunker in its shadow. People around me are weighing that too, sobered, feeling their eyes burn, hearing the rattling in their lungs.
Some people think that the world may end with a bang. But what we see in places such as California is a gradual, debilitating and dispiriting decline that puts one in mind of Eliot’s famous lines, from the Hollow Men.
This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
At this web site I will try to draw lessons for the Christian community from events such as those in California. It seems to me that there are two lessons here.
The first, of course, is to do what we can to help people in the here and now.
The second lesson is to do with the long term. We need to understand that what we see in California is not a problem, but a predicament — there are no solutions, we cannot go back to where we were. The opportunity for doing so is decades behind us.
As a community we must learn to live in a world — the world of the Industrial Revolution — that is ending not with a bang, but a whimper.
Many people who are aware of Age of Limits issues have prepared for a sudden crisis. These people are often called “preppers”.
But may be they are not as “prepped” as they thought they were. This article from Peak Prosperity describes how a person living in North Carolina who thought he was well prepared, fared less well than expected when hit by Hurricane Florence in September of this year. The problems that he faced fell into three broad categories:
Despite careful efforts to store his emergency gear responsibly, he discovered the humid North Carolina climate had ruined several pieces of equipment.
Incorrect assumptions Several components did not work as expected when deployed. The “universal” gas line purchased in advance to connect his collection of camping stoves to a large propane tank simply didn’t fit.
There are two important lessons that we can draw from this person’s experience.
Having an emergency plan is not sufficient. That plan should be tested frequently.
Always have backups for critical equipment.
Christian Climate Action
In Britain, two members of Christian Climate Action have been arrested as result of their protests as part of the “Extinction Rebellion”. One has to admire the courage and sacrifice of Ruth Jarman and Phil Kingston.
It is interesting to see that these Christians are talking very bluntly; they use the word “extinction”, rather than something less dramatic, such as “climate change”. Their demands are:
That the UK declares a state of emergency around climate change;
That the government takes action to create a zero carbon economy by 2025;
That we create a national assembly of ordinary people to decide what our zero carbon future will look like.
They compare themselves with civil rights activists in the United States and with suffragettes in the early 20th century. It seems to me, however, that they face a much greater challenge than those earlier activists. Those people were for increasing the number of people with civil rights — the right to vote, for example. They were not proposing to take anything away from anyone — except maybe feelings of unjustified superiority. But, if we are serious about a “zero carbon economy” just seven years from now, then we are talking about shutting down the world’s economies. Everything that we do is based on the use of fossil fuel energy (coal, oil, natural gas). A “zero carbon economy” would create its own form of extinction.
Unlike the previous activists, the people from Christian Climate Action are demanding enormous sacrifice from those who currently benefit from the current world order. Yet look at the violent response to a simple increase in the tax on diesel fuel sold in France. There’s a disconnect here.
Which takes us back to a persistent theme of this site — climate change is not a stand-alone issue. It needs to be considered in the context of resources, economics and population, as shown in the following simple Venn Diagram.
And, as the French protests demonstrate, we have to factor in human psychology — there are very few people who will voluntarily reduce their standard of living.
As I look at the church’s responses to the impacts of climate changes I cannot help but be deeply impressed and moved by the commitment shown by so many people. Yet I am also concerned that some of these efforts may be in vain. They may even be counter-productive. They may be unwitting victims of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
My first concern is to do with false savings. Let’s say that your place of work is near to your home. You have been in the habit of driving to work, but now decide to use a bicycle. You save a few gallons or liters of fuel each week. Great! You have done your bit to reduce the use of a scarce resource (oil) and you there are now fewer greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
But has that gasoline really been saved? Since it is now available to others it will be used by someone, somewhere. So, the truth is that it has not been saved. It has merely been transferred from one consumer (you) to another (a stranger who could be anywhere in the world).
You may respond by saying that we need to make a gesture, or that cycling to work is good for your health. Fair enough — but the fact is that you have not met your original goal of reducing gasoline consumption and reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.
In fact, you may have made matters worse than if you had done nothing at all. In order to understand this conundrum let us meet that bewhiskered Victorian gentleman, William Stanley Jevons.
The Coal Question
Jevons was living at a time when Great Britain was going through a phase of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution, which had started about 150 years earlier, was kicking into high gear.
In the year 1865 he published The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (they went in for long book titles in those days). Even though he was writing 150 years ago, the words he wrote in that book are as relevant now as they were then (just substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’).
Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back into the laborious poverty of early times. With such facts familiarly before us, it can be no matter of surprise that year by year we make larger draughts upon a material of such myriad qualities — of such miraculous powers.
. . . new applications of coal are of an unlimited character. In the command of force, molecular and mechanical, we have the key to all the infinite varieties of change in place or kind of which nature is capable. No chemical or mechanical operation, perhaps, is quite impossible to us, and invention consists in discovering those which are useful and commercially practicable . . .
I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.
Let us unpack those three paragraphs.
The first paragraph states that coal was the über-commodity of the 19th century because it was the principle source of energy. Substitute the word ‘oil’ for ‘coal’ and his words apply to our situation. Without coal, without oil, we are “thrown back into the laborious poverty of earlier times”.
The second paragraph shows the coal and oil not only give us raw power, they give us “molecular power” — the ability to create new products. They are used not only as fuel but also to create basic chemicals that in turn are used to make an enormous range of products such as fertilizers, medications, pesticides and plastics.
But, and there’s always a ‘but’, in the third paragraph Jevons points out that the supply of coal is not infinite. Moreover, it will become ever more expensive to extract future supplies. We will never run out of coal or oil, but, sooner or later, we will run out of affordable coal (and oil). He is actually describing, a hundred years ahead of his time, the problem of declining ERoEI — Energy Returned on Energy Invested. He has a premonition of the Hubbert Curve.
His wonderful phrase, “that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress” pretty much summarizes much of what we are trying to achieve in this blog. There are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. But there are boundaries that will “stop our progress”.
I suppose that there is one other question that can be derived from the above statements. How is it that the quality of our written English has declined so precipitously? Where did we go wrong?
The following two statements summarize his famous paradox.
It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.
Whatever, therefore, conduces to increase the efficiency of coal, and to diminish the cost of its use, directly tends to augment the value of the steam-engine, and to enlarge the field of its operations.
Translated into modern, grade-level English, he is saying,
Coal is being burned with greater efficiency. (There were two reasons for this. The first is technological innovation, the second the economies of scale that ensue when the number of customers is increased.)
Hence more factories and power plants use coal since it is now economical to do so.
Hence the overall consumption of coal increases.
Apply the same thinking to our situation.
People buy fuel-efficient cars to save money.
Because their cars are more efficient, they drive more miles.
Also, because it is more economical to drive, more people buy cars.
Hence the overall consumption of fuel increases.
Hence we should all drive 1960 gas guzzlers. What’s not to like?
The Katy Freeway
The idea of Jevons Paradox crops up everywhere.
I used to live in Houston, Texas, and frequently drove on the I-10 West (the Katy Freeway). It is a major, badly congested commuter highway. To reduce the congestion the freeway was expanded such that the intersection with Beltway 8 is now 26 lanes across. (There used to be a two-track railroad on the corridor but they tore it up to make room for more traffic lanes).
Once construction was complete, travel was much faster and more convenient for just a few weeks. But now the traffic is as bad as ever. Why? Because more people chose to drive to work, and real estate developers built more homes adjacent to the freeway.
Demand met supply.
Demand Reduction Is Crucial
Jevons Paradox leads us to the conclusion that demand reduction is crucial. Merely saving resources or improving efficiencies will do no more than keep us in one place; indeed, such activities may actually make things worse.
If you make steam engines more efficient then more factories and power plants will be built and coal consumption will increase.
If you add more lanes to freeways then more people will use those extra lanes, and congestion will be as bad as ever.
If you drive an economical car then other people will drive more miles and more people will buy cars, thus wiping out your sacrifice.
The lesson is simple:
Reducing consumption or pollution is of no value unless overall demand is reduced. Failure to heed this insight means that all attempts to address our predicaments through improved efficiency or consumption are doomed not only to fail, they may actually make those predicaments worse unless demand elsewhere, all over the world, is reduced correspondingly.
I started this page by alluding to the fact that so many of our church friends are dedicated in their effort to help those who have been hurt, in one way or another, by climate change and related problems.
Jevons was with them. Far from being a cold-hearted economist who had no concern for the needs of those in trouble, he showed compassion. Here is what he said (once more, using a quality of English that one can only envy).
We must begin to allow that we can do today what we cannot so well do tomorrow….
Reflection will show that we ought not to think of interfering with the free use of the material wealth which Providence has placed at our disposal, but that our duties wholly consist in the earnest and wise application of it. We may spend it on the one hand in increased luxury and ostentation and corruption, and we shall be blamed. We may spend it on the other hand in raising the social and moral condition of the people, and in reducing the burdens of future generations. Even if our successors be less happily placed than ourselves they will not then blame us.
Any attempt to “save” energy or to reduce emissions is pointless unless it is matched with a commensurate reduction in energy consumption and emissions everywhere by everyone.