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Scientific viewpoint or 'religious' belief: My cat explains energy optimism

Each morning when I release my cat from the basement where he sleeps, he rushes to the upstairs bathroom to drink water from a bowl placed there for him. He appears to have a 'religious' belief that the water in this bowl is far superior to that in the bowl sitting alongside his food in the basement. So far as I can tell, there is no discernible evidence available to him to make this distinction. I take his preference then as a matter of faith rather than evidence. The water upstairs is holy. The water in the basement—not so much.

How do I know that the upstairs water is really holy? When I forget to fill the upstairs bowl, the cat complains even if his basement bowl is full. It is hard enough to reason with a cat, but even harder to argue one out of what is essentially a religious belief.

And so it is with humans. Some ideas find their basis in fact, while others fall under the category of faith. As it turns out, those that are faith-based are the most difficult to overturn. I rarely try. But, then there is the vast sea of ideas parading as fact, when really, they are nothing but ideology based on ideas that are empirically false or at least suspect.

Such is the ideology of the fossil fuel optimists who tell us that the marketplace will bring forth whatever fossil fuel supplies we need when we need them at prices we like. Some, but not all, tell us that fossil fuel supplies have no practical limits because it is our imagination that brings them out of the ground. Statements like that are part and parcel of the kind of magical thinking that infects the public discussion about the future of energy.

I style myself as an energy realist with an emphasis on risk management. No one can know the future. That's why it is important to use our imagination to picture outcomes that might hurt us badly and to suggest measures to prevent or mitigate those outcomes.

The fossil fuel optimists in the world tend to be economists, not geologists (who generally take an empirical rather than religious approach to matters). Those economists simply know that they know that the marketplace is a superior force—even a god-like one—to which we should exclusively entrust our energy future. Yet, that same marketplace has failed to yield enough crude oil in the last decade to provide the cheap energy that keeps the global system stable. In fact, the record price of oil has and continues to be a destabilizing force in global affairs.

My colleague Jeffrey Brown—who back in 2006 conceived the Export Land Model and through it correctly foretold the subsequent decline in global oil exports and the accompanying price rise—recently remarked that many of the optimists believe something which defies logic. They believe that the sum of production from discrete oil wells, oil fields and oil producing countries around the world—which provide innumerable examples of peak production followed by persistent declines—will never add up to a global peak and decline in oil production—ever! Oil production will grow at some percentage each year forever, indefinitely.

In fairness, I must point out that quite of few of the other optimists say that a peak in oil production is decades away. So, at least their case does not rest on a logical impossibility imposed on a finite Earth. But, they refuse to admit that no one knows the day when oil production will peak. And, the inescapable logic of their position is this: If world oil production will someday peak and decline, the risk of a decline grows with each day. Failed peak oil predictions of the past don't mean that peak oil is wrong, only that peak oil draws ever closer. The bumpy plateau in oil production proper (crude oil plus lease condensate) since 2005 ought to be cause for alarm.

Now, I should classify those economist/optimists so that their motives become more transparent. There are those who work directly for or as consultants to the oil industry. Enough said. There are those who work for Wall Street firms that do substantial business with the oil industry. Enough said. There are those who work in government all around the world. Here it can only be said that most of the world's governments have no plausible plan for addressing the consequences of a persistent decline in world oil production. So, given that, it hardly seems advisable to them to inform the public about a danger for which there is no response.

The optimists associated with the oil and financial industries will tolerate no dissent. Those of us who want a rational discussion about logical outcomes, prudent risk management and sound public policy are to be ridiculed and shouted down as heretics. In fact, those optimists are currently engaging in a public relations blitz designed to drown out dissenting voices and make people think the following: "I'm hearing that we have a lot more oil from a wide variety of credible sources: energy analysts and consultants, oil industry executives, think tank scholars, university academics, even government energy agencies. How can they all be wrong?"

But the simple truth is that—except for the government personnel—they are paid directly by the industry or have financial ties to it through donations to think tanks and grants for academic research. The government personnel get most of their information from the industry, so it is not surprising that they share the industry's view.

Keep in mind that the work that the optimists do on Wall Street and in the oil industry is focused specifically on making rich people richer—that is, the rich who own and run the oil industry and the rich who own, run and/or prosper along with Wall Street and all financial establishments worldwide. These optimists are not paid to think about the public good, but only to search out speculative profits and stoke speculative fevers for the advantage of their benefactors. Their pronouncements about energy or practically any other subject are not made for the sake of good policy, but for the sake of high profits.

If there is room for optimism about energy, logic tells us that it simply cannot lie with finite, depletable resources. We do know that the resource of sunlight is vast. The solar radiation which strikes the Earth over just 20 days is equivalent to all the energy in known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas. But, so far, we have only been able to harvest just a tiny amount of it for human purposes. While there are environmental impacts to large solar and wind installations (and, let's not forget that wind is just another form of solar energy), the energy source, the Sun, is on any human time scale inexhaustible.

As a practical matter, we would have to reduce our energy consumption drastically over time to make it possible for renewable energy to supply the lion's share of our needs. Even a very rapid and large build-out of renewable energy infrastructure would not allow us to consume the colossal amounts of energy that we do today, at least not any time soon.

But, we know how to reduce our energy consumption considerably. I always get a rise out of American audiences when I tell them that the average European lives on one-half the amount of energy of the average American. And, it's worth noting that oil consumption for Japan, Germany, and Italy has been in persistent decline since 2000. But, even in these countries, there is much more to be done.

It matters little whether my cat ever comes to the realization that he's getting the same water upstairs as he is in the basement. His 'religious' belief in upstairs water does no harm to him and inconveniences me only on rare occasions. But the religious devotion of the energy optimists to the oil abundance story and their campaign to prevent a reasoned discussion based on the facts and logic has the potential to harm us all very badly and soon.

The future of energy is not a parlor game or a poker match. It's dead serious business. The oil industry and its spokespersons in their various garbs are taking it seriously. Are you?

Editorial Notes: Photo credit: flickr/Doug88888

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