A Personal Journey Part IV: Twilight in the Desert

Matt Simmons – author of Twilight in the Desert
Matthew Simmons (1943 – 2010)

A Personal Journey

The second chapter of the book A New City of God: Theology in an Age of Limits describes my personal journey through Dante’s “Forest Dark”, in which I learned more about the changes that are taking place, and as I thought about the theological implications of such changes.

Dante’s Forest Dark

Dante’s Forest Dark

There have been various “aha” moments in my Age of Limits journey. Understanding Augustine’s City of God was one of them; reading Matt Simmons’ seminal book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy was another.

Twilight in the Desert

Simmons was head of his own company; it specialized in financing oil and gas ventures. He was one of the first people to invest in the Gulf of Mexico. He was an integral part of the oil and gas community; he knew the energy business intimately.

In the early years of the 21st century Simmons became suspicious of the claims made by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to do with the size of their oil reserves. Many nations hold on to this number as a closely guarded secret, particularly if their reserves are actually less than they claim. Telling the truth will reduce their political influence and power would decline.

To get around this secrecy Simmons spent many hours in the library of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) in Richardson, Texas. He read many, many papers to do with oil production in the KSA. Although most of these papers discussed only a narrow topic, he was able to piece together a bigger picture. His conclusion was that the reserves in the KSA were much less than generally accepted, and that the nation would soon be entering a period when oil production would decline. Hence the title of his book.

It is likely that Simmons over-stated his case. Nevertheless, his book changed the paradigms of “there will always be plenty of oil” and, “the Saudis can always pump more if they want to” to one of, “maybe there is a limit as to how much oil is out there”.

Following the publication of his book Simmons traveled extensively discussing Peak Oil issues. I attended an SPE meeting in Houston, Texas at which he was the speaker. There were about 50 people in the room — most of them engineers or project managers in the oil and gas business. The audience gave him a polite but rather frosty reception.

Before the meeting I spoke to Simmons briefly; I pushed back on some of his arguments. Our discussion was not entirely amicable. He died not long after that meeting. I wish now that I had shaken his hand and told him how much I appreciated what he had done. But it is too late now.

The lessons that I derived from his work were,

  • Oil (and by implication any other natural resource) is a finite resource. Once it is gone, it is gone.
  • The truth about what resources are available can be difficult to ascertain because many nations and businesses want to keep that information confidential and/or mislead us. It is also possible that they themselves may not understand the size of their reserves.
  • Extrapolations that assume that the future is simply a linear continuation of the past can be highly misleading, or just plain, flat-out wrong. This is the linearity trap. With reference to oil, production from a particular field will climb steeply, then reach a peak, after which production declines, but probably at a lower rate than the initial climb.

Toward the end of his life, Simmons’ credibility was hurt by some of the preposterous claims he made to do with the Macondo spill. Furthermore, his predictions to do with the price of oil reaching $500 per barrel were completely wide of the mark.

Although his predications often turned out to be badly wrong, Simmons does teach us two important lessons.

The first lesson is that it is important to study a topic in depth and to do one’s homework before stating an opinion on that topic. The Saudi government was not willing to release auditable data regarding oil production (they still don’t). So Simmons carried out the tedious spade work of reading through a large number of SPE papers to try and find the truth. He did his homework.

The second lesson is that he was courageous. He must, at times, have felt like the prisoner in Plato’s Cave. When the prisoner returns from his journey to the world outside the cave and tells the other prisoners about what he saw and experienced, they want to attack him; they don’t want to face reality. He faced an almost endless stream of criticism for the data and opinions that he presented.


Mary Poppins and Hopium

Mary Poppins: A Deus Ex Machina

The following material is extracted from the manuscript of the book A New City of God: Theology for an Age of Limits.


Mary Poppins

Last week may family and I saw the movie Mary Poppins Returns. We had a good time and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I had not seen the original Mary Poppins, so I was only vaguely familiar with the story line.

As I am sure that most of you know, Mary Poppins is a governess who floats down from the sky to help families in distress. Then, once she has sorted out their problems, she floats back into the sky to await the next movie release, I suppose.

The term deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is used in drama to describe an action or event that comes from outside the plot and that resolves the difficulties in which the characters are enmeshed. The fictional character Mary Poppins is an example of a deus ex machina. On page 81 we discussed Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’ concept. Mary Poppins can be seen as a ‘White Swan’.

Wilkins Micawber
Wilkins Micawber

On page 10 (of the book) I describe the philosophy of the wonderful Dickens character, Wilkins Micawber. He is always on the edge of bankruptcy, but he is always cheerful and hopeful. One of his stock phrases that he uses in response to the crisis du jour is, “Something will come up”. He trusts that a Mary Poppins, a deus ex machina, will come to rescue him.

I have no doubt I shall, please Heaven, begin to be more beforehand with the world, and to live in a perfectly new manner, if -if, in short, anything turns up.

Now, the Mary Poppins movie and the Micawber character are both fictional, and not to be taken too seriously. But, on a more somber note, when faced with the realities of resource depletion and climate change many people have a similar response. They acknowledge the nature of our predicaments, but they say that, “Something” — they don’t know what it is — “will come up”. The something may be a new technology, it may be a new source of energy, or it may be the latest political initiative.


The optimists may be right — maybe something will, in fact, come up. But the term for this attitude is not hope, it is “hopium”. (It’s the response that many investors have when they own a stock that is going down in value — they hang on in the hope that the situation will somehow improve.)

Those who take the attitude of “something will come up” do have some historical basis for their claim. For example, in the book SuperFreakonmics the authors Levitt and Dubner talk about the horse manure problem that large cities faced at the end of the 19th century. Horses were used for all types of transportation: streetcars, wagons, carriages all had to be pulled by horses. The book says,

The average horse produced about 24 pounds of manure a day. With 200,000 horses (in New York), that’s nearly 5 million pounds of horse manure. A day. Where did it go?

. . . in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure.

The problem was so severe that a ten day conference was organized to try and come up with solutions. After three days the conference was ended because no progress was being made.

The solution to the problem was, of course, the introduction of the gasoline-powered automobile. Within a very short period of time motorized cars, trucks and streetcars replaced the horses and the “peak dung” problem simply went away. Of course, we now face the pollution problems created by automobiles.

The following points should be noted about the horse manure predicament.

  1. It was not solved by people trying to work out a solution. The solution seemed to come out of nowhere.
  2. It was not solved by tuning the existing system, for example by finding ways of needing fewer horses in the cities, or trying to develop more continent horses.
  3. Government intervention was not a factor, nor were government actions such as modifying tax codes or writing regulations to do with horse management.

So maybe someone will come up with an invention that converts the Age of Limits predicament into a problem. For example, if someone were to develop an electric battery that could store 100 times the energy of the batteries now in use the world would change in a hurry. The recent increase in production in the United States as a result of “fracking” is certainly making a short-term difference to the American economy. New technology can help.

But just relying on such a breakthrough is irresponsible. New technologies and new initiatives will use energy, and the First Law tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Then the Second Law tells us that all of our activities, no matter what they are, will increase system entropy.

A Personal Journey Part IV: A History of Knowledge (Augustine of Hippo)

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Charles van Doren (1926- )
Charles van Doren (1926- )

This is the fourth post to do with my personal journey to do with the Age of Limits. Posts in this series are shown below. Those that have an associated hyperlink have already been published at this site. One of the books that had a great influence on my thinking was A History of Knowledge by Charles van Doren. In it he discusses some of the major thinkers who changed the world. In this post I look at what he had to say about Augustine, Bishop of the north African town of Hippo.

  • The Machine Stops
  • A Chemical Engineering Magazine Article
  • Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World
  • A History of Knowledge
    • Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
    • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
    • Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
    • Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
    • Isaac Newton (1642-1726)
  • Twilight in the Desert
  • Down The Hubbert Curve
  • The Archdruid Report
  • Hard Times for These Times
  • Oil Price Collapse
  • Hegelian Synthesis
  • Jevons Paradox
  • Sustainable Growth: An Oxymoron
  • Peak Prosperity
  • Post Carbon Institute
  • Cassandra’s Legacy
  • Resource Insights
  • Francis I
  • The Last Question
  • The Journey
  • The Ladder of Awareness

van Doren describes how Augustine, bishop of Hippo, developed the concept of a ‘City of God’ — a city that was fundamentally different from the City of Man. (It is this theme that provided the inspiration for my book.)

Aurelius Augustine was the son of a pagan, Patricius of Tagaste, and his Christian wife, Monica. While studying to become a rhetorician, he plunged into a turmoil of philosophical and psychological doubts, leading him to Manichaeism. In 383 he moved to Rome and then Milan to teach rhetoric. Despite exploring classical philosophical systems, especially skepticism and Neoplatonism, his studies of Paul’s letters with his friend Alypius, and the preaching of Bishop Ambrose, led in 386 to his conversion from mixed beliefs to Christianity. He soon returned to Tagaste and founded a religious community, and in 395 or 396, became bishop of Hippo.

Augustine – Bishop of Hippo

Augustine had a ring-side seat for the decline of city of Rome. He understood that all cities of men eventually fail (just look at the “failed states” in the Hebrew bible). Only the City of God, he argued, is permanent. It is this concept that is central to the theme of my interpretation as to what is going on now in our society. Our current ‘City of Man’ — an industrial culture based on the gift of stored energy in the form of fossil fuels — is winding down. So what will our new ‘City of God’ look like? Along with two other of his books — De Mendacio and Confessions — we are provided with guidance for the coming Age of Limits.