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Deep thought - June 8

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


Apocalypse now

Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail
Whether it's something in the air (such as greenhouse gases) or something in the economy (such as oil and food prices), the only field where there currently seems to be a boom is in gloom. But it's not just ranters wearing bathrobes on street corners: Some of the most respected thinkers about science and society are issuing alarming prognostications about humanity coming to an end, with a bang or with a whimper. Martin Mittelstaedt surveys the doom patrol
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... And [British scientist and author James Lovelock is] not alone. In the past year, amid financial panics, wild fluctuations in oil prices and reports on global warming happening faster than anyone expected, there's a spate of books making the case that something monumentally bad is about to unfold.

There are books warning that climate change will soon cause wars or will so alter the environment that we are approaching another major age of extinctions. Some have dwelled on the idea that the threat may be extraterrestrial, with asteroids plowing into the planet. Still others have contended that oil shortages are going to snuff out civilization.

The idea of End Times, or apocalypses, has been around as long as religion. Until recently, it has been a mainstay of Christian fundamentalism. But the notion that the world as we know it is about to end - this time with an environmental rather than a religious-inspired bang - lately has been making inroads in more mainstream and progressive-leaning circles, including activists, scientists and pundits.

It isn't just intellectual lightweights crying wolf, but high-forehead types such as the octogenarian Mr. Lovelock, who has more than 200 scientific papers to his credit. Also among the throng is Gwynne Dyer, the Canadian author and military security pundit, who recently penned a book and did a CBC radio series asserting that wars will soon be caused by climate change.

British science writer Fred Pearce calls his latest book The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change. And Lester Brown, who founded the Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, one of the globe's first environmental think tanks, frets that crop failures could start to unravel civilization.

... John Michael Greer, an environmentalist blogger in Oregon, is in that camp. And, like many others, he has parlayed his grim expectations into a book, in his case titled The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age.

Rather than going out with an apocalyptic bang, Mr. Greer thinks that we're facing a slow-motion, decades-long grind downward tied to fluctuations in energy prices. When the price of oil is low, economies will regain a bit of their lustre, only to head south again when prices spike to punishing levels. But when all the oil is gone, it's lights out, literally.
(7 June 2009)
EB contributor John Michael Greer has made the Globe and Mail's "doom patrol" in the company of luminaries such as Lester Brown and James Lovelock. A high honor indeed!

Author Mittelstaedt is a little behind. We are not "approaching another major age of extinctions" -- we are in the midst of one. -BA



Peak Oil, Sustainability and the Problem of Freedom

Kurt Cobb, The Oil Drum
The following is a guest essay by Kurt Cobb exploring the concept of freedom via a resource depletion filter. Kurt speaks and writes frequently on energy and the environment and is featured on many sites including Energy Bulletin and EV World. His personal weblog is Resource Insights. Previously on TheOilDrum, Kurt wrote Peak Oil and Mass Communication.
- Nate Hagens, TOD editor

In the film "A Beautiful Mind" the putative hero is John Nash, the Nobel prize-winning mathematician who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia and ultimately overcomes it. The same John Nash early in his career created a model of human behavior that lives on in our institutions and policies and which has significantly constricted our views of human freedom. So says a BBC documentary series entitled "The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom."

(The three episodes of the documentary are available on YouTube: Episode One: F*ck You, Buddy, Episode Two: The Lonely Robot, Episode Three: We Will Force You To Be Free.)

The documentary's thesis is that Nash's view of humans as "self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures" has been incorporated into public policy and culture both in the United States and Great Britain in a way that undermines human freedom. The issues discussed in the broadcast and in a seminal essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty" which is referenced in the program have profound implications for those concerned about peak oil, resource depletion in general or any set of issues that falls under the rubric of sustainability. The ideas of negative and positive freedom outlined by Berlin in his famous essay and the Nashian model of human behavior pose difficult challenges to those who want to put human society on what they perceive as a more sustainable path.

First, let me briefly outline Berlin's definitions of negative and positive freedom though a complete reading of his essay is necessary to comprehend all the nuances. Negative freedom is essentially the freedom to be left alone. It is freedom from coercion, but within a well-defined realm that has differed from age to age. It would now commonly include one's home life, religious life, leisure pursuits and even voluntary economic transactions (that is, those involving something other than paying taxes). It is the realm of personal choice. But it is also the realm of privacy including the right to be free from arbitrary searches and the right to confidentiality in our financial and medical affairs.

Positive freedom is more difficult to explain. It involves the amount of autonomy we have, that is, the power we are able to exert over our own lives outside the realm reserved for personal choice and privacy.
(7 June 2009)



Coal, Oil and the Human Difficulty of Grasping Long Duration Problems

Gregor Macdonald, Seeking Alpha
In the mid 19th Century, William Stanley Jevons patiently tried to explain to his fellow countrymen that the rich energy content in coal was not a marginal but a pervasive influence on nearly every aspect of the British economy. He warned that coal production would inevitably migrate away from the easy, near-surface deposits to the deeper deposits that would take more capital, more labor–indeed more energy–to extract. His point was rather simple, but, it of course escaped the understanding of the general public. Jevons held the view that British coal would attain, and then surpass, an optimal point of price, production, and therefore utility to the British economy.

Does any of this sound familiar? Jevons was repeatedly misunderstood as saying that Britain was running out of coal. He took great pains to explain the scale of the problem, but Jevons was talking about a cycle whose duration would extend beyond people’s immediate concerns. The Coal Question was first published in 1865. It is without question a brilliant probe into population growth, energy content, and the transformative power of coal. Moreover, Jevons displays the flair typical of the 19th century writer–in this case an economist–who is able to call upon a much broader array of subject matter. It was delicious, for example, to hear an economist draw a line from the power of coal to the flourishing of arts, and culture. This would be a rarity today, among our contemporary economists, who fly as a tight formation of cramped specialists. An economist now would nearly have to seek permission to write such things.

Jevons died young, a number of unfinished books still ahead of him. British coal production peaked in 1913. The decline of net energy earnings from British sourced coal was more than effectively masked by the profits from resource extraction elsewhere in the world, via the Empire.
(5 June 2009)
The post cites an article on Jevons with old photographs: The Utiiitarian Photographer.



War, what is it good for? It made us less selfish

Steve Connor, Independent (UK)
Scientists explain how altruism evolved over 200,000 years of conflict
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One of the defining characteristics of being human is the supreme act of personal sacrifice needed to lay down one's life for the good of the group – but could such altruism be hard-wired in our genes as a result of Darwinian evolution?

Biologists have argued for decades about the evolution of altruism and long ago came to the conclusion that Darwinian natural selection cannot explain acts of supreme personal sacrifice except those directly connected with helping the survival of close blood relatives who share similar genes.

But now a study has suggested that altruism in prehistoric human societies may after all have resulted from a form of natural selection caused by a state of near-continual warfare between competing tribes of hunter gatherers, an idea that Charles Darwin himself first suggested in his 1873 book The Descent of Man.

A scientist has suggested that because so many of the 200,000 years of human history were spent during our hunter-gatherer phase, before the invention of agriculture, less than 10,000 years ago, this long period in our evolutionary history shaped our social behaviour. Moreover, he believes that altruism may have evolved directly as a result of tribal warfare because personal sacrifice was the key that enabled one group to be victorious over another.

Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, said: "Warfare was sufficiently common and lethal among our ancestors to favour the evolution of what I call parochial altruism, a predisposition to be co-operative towards group members and hostile towards outsiders.
(5 June 2009)

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