Thursday, March 11, 2010

Children of the Club of Rome

Sarah Palin's story that Obama's health care legislation called for death panels to determine who would receive medical care, and who would simply be allowed to die in the new medical order, has rightly been described as the lie of the year for 2009. However, a recent post on the Oil Drum by Megan Quinn Bachman tells us that a form of death panels is emerging among people who believe that the Ehrlich/Forrester/Meadows/Club of Rome theory of global collapse of industrial civilization/resources/population . The post, titled "Leading the Way to a Low-Energy Future" describes what Bachman calls lifestyle leaders. Lifestyle leaders are people who are
building gardens, weatherizing their homes, getting rid of their cars, moving off-grid, bartering with neighbors and joining Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
According to Bachman these lifestyle leaders are pioneering the new order by forging a new set of careers appropriate to the new post civilization order:

I would argue that these people, the Children of the Club of Rome, are the death panels for hundreds of millions if not billions of people. Yet the Club of Rome model predicts a mass human die off:

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Thus Bachman's lifestyle leaders are preparing for a Club of Rome apocalypse, which features mass human die off.
I am fond of Gail the Actuary (Gail E. Tverberg), an Oil Drum Editor who is associated with the "we are headed for collapse" point of view. i see Gail's work as having a positive aspect in that she and her guest posters repeatedly point to problems which are otherwise unvoiced. i do disagree with some assumptions and with the chain of argument which inevitably leads to negative conclusions about the future of a high population, materially wealthy civilization. I disagree with the view that the collapse of material civilization is inevitable. In addition I view the projected collapse of material civilization as an unmitigated catastrophe. This is what Chris Clugston suggests:

i disagree with this perspective because it assumes a far more limited future resource picture than I do. My viewpoint can be stated simply, we are not running out of energy, material resources, or food. A combination of two technologies, Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking), and in-situ leaching, offers the potential for high material resource recovery with favorable EROEI, from what was previously considered low grade ore. It is inevitable that the use of such recovery technologies will be applied to resource recovery, and the recovery of Uranium and thorium as part of the process will assure a favorable EROEI. Both fracking and in-situ leaching are highly tested technologies and thus appear to offer a path to a continuation of high energy/high material output civilization. Through the use of efficient and safe technologies like the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, the population of earth can be assured of a high level of material prosperity for as long as there is likely to be people around.

Thus the future resource picture may not be nearly as bleak as Gail the Actuary and her associates would have us believe. Nor is the supposed mega-famine, which Paul Ehrlich, Jay Forrester and the Club of Rome have predicted, nearly as likely to occur, as they suggest. Ehrlich's famine predictions were thwarted by the so called "Green Revolution," which dramatically increased agricultural yields in countries like India.

A recent review of global agricultural resources, published in Science, titled "Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People." argues,
the world can produce more food and can ensure that it is used more efficiently and equitably. A multifaceted and linked global strategy is needed to ensure sustainable and equitable food security, . . ..
Thus in a high energy uranium/thorium based economy, the food supply is likely to be continue to be assured. The argument for the inevitable collapse of civilization can be falsified with some certainty, the impending image of mass death through the starvation of most people can be written off as a fantasy. Bachman's "lifestyle leaders"can be seen for what they are, a misanthropic death panel for the human race, whose lifestyle will turn against them as the population of earth continues to survive and increasingly prosper.


donb said...

Charles Barton wrote:
I see Gail's work as having a positive aspect in that she and her guest posters repeatedly point to problems which are otherwise unvoiced.

Agreed. Problems need to be pointed out so that the "builders" in society can more clearly focus their efforts.

Charles Barton also wrote:
My viewpoint can be stated simply, we are not running out of energy, material resources, or food.

And perhaps even more importantly, we are not running out of brain power. Anyone who has been on this earth more than a few decades has seen major shifts in how things are done. But these shifts are often hard for us to comprehend, as we are living in the middle of the change. We easily dismiss them as either minor natural evolution or as not very important.

I have been following the discussions at "The Oil Drum" for some time. I am getting tired of some of the arguments. The mistake most often made is that oil (or fossil fuels in general) and renewables are equated to energy. While these forms of energy may be easy to use, focusing on them causes the discussion to concentrate on the "mice" in the room while ignoring whale that is nuclear energy.

The discussions tend to focus on extrapolation of current trends (which may indeed be unsustainable), and leave out game-changing developments.

Perhaps the most frustrating is focus on the unsustainability of "Business as Usual", while ignoring what we already have in hand: the paradigm-changing properties of inexpensive, abundant, safe and clean energy from nuclear sources.

Septeus7 said...

Excellent Post. The only problem we face is the fear that we can't face resource problems itself.

Anonymous said...

Charles your statement, "Thus in a high energy uranium/thorium based economy, the food supply is likely to be continue to be assured", is a resonable conclusion.

I conclude that modern agriculture in the USA is the most sustainable and efficient form of farming on the planet. Continuing breakthroughs in the area of genetic engineering will bring improvements in sustainability, soil conservation, yield, and nutritional quality of crops.

My perspective is that of a farmer and retired biology professor with degrees in plant physiology and microbiology. I am a farm owner and in the 1950s I was a farm operator. Those who go back to the organic form of agriculture practiced the 1950s will become more and more isolated by continuing growth in ag technology. Their recipe for sustainability is popular on the Campus lecture circuit, but as you point out it can't feed the world's population in 2050.

John Tjostem

Soylent said...

In almost any area you care to look at "business as usual" is rapid and continual change. This is what makes the mentality at TOD such a farse.

If you told someone about wikipedia in 1995 they'd have told you that it would be wildy inaccurate, filled with irrelevant garbage and pseudoscience; and that you're underestimating the destructive impulses of humans, the commercial spammers will win etc. It's nearly a miracle; but if you ask anyone today it's just normal.

If you told people in the 80's that those huge, expensive car phones would be shrunk into a tiny little hand held thing so cheap that billions of people who can barely afford to eat anything but staple food will have them; they'd be slack-jawed.

Fish aquaculture is now over half the worlds production of fish for human consumption. If I predicted this 20 years ago I'd been called a crank.

No-till farming of soy and corn is becomming ubiquitous and regularly reaches the same yields per unit area as conventional methods. How? They're using genetically modified crops that are resistant to a wide-spectrum herbicide(most commonly glyphosphate). The benefit of no-till farming is that it vastly reduces soil errosion, significantly reduces the problems with fertilizer run-off and reduces the need for fertilizer application. A potentially huge benefit is that you can take a significant fraction of the above ground biomass(e.g. corn stover) without soil errosion and use it as a chemical feedstock for plastics, ammonia, pesticides and all sorts of other useful chemicals.

In the early 90's we didn't even have nickel-hydride or lithium-ion batteries. Now there's several serious attempts being made at metal-air batteries which if any of the approaches are successful have several times the energy density of the current best lithium ion even if they're based on abundant and cheap zinc.

There are very few areas of technology where the exists anything remotely resembling a status quo.

Anonymous said...

Commercial fertilizer was not applied in the 1950s on most farms and chemical weed control was just beginning. I cultivated my corn three times during the season and in the fall I plowed my fields with a moldboard plow. My corn yield of 40 bushels/acre was considered to be a good yield. Today my same farm produces 200 bushels/acre corn crops. No till and minimum till have replaced the plow. Monsanto’s Round-up and Round-up ready seeds have made possible the complete elimination of the corn cultivator. A sprayer with a long boom replaces the tiller. In the 1950s a net loss of soil was occurring. Today’s agricultural practices can boast of actually building soil on much of the nation’s cultivated land.

Paul Ehrlich saw a pending population crash that didn’t happen. The crash didn’t happen because of the advances in agriculture. Commercial fertilizer, plant breeding, and genetically engineered crops have brought about abundant crops that are sufficient to feed our world’s human population of 6.8 billion. We can not go back to the organic farms of the 1950 without causing mass starvation.

Genetically engineered (GE) crops are a lifesaving breakthrough for the developing world because plants have been created that contains all the essential nutrients for human health as well a breeding compatible with local growing conditions. It is a tragedy that well meaning “greens” in Europe have poisoned the minds of Africans against the use of GE crops. Stewart Brand claims that this campaign has caused the starvation of untold numbers of Africans.

As a plant physiologist and microbiologist, I know that plants have evolved poisonous molecules to combat plant eating pests. Such crop plants may cause serious allergies in humans. In the 3.5 billion years that microorganisms have been around, they have likely invented every possible harmful chemical. There is really nothing to fear from GE crops. The molecular biologist can not create a “Franken food” that contains a new and unique molecule. On the contrary, GE seeds are required to pass tests to show that no harmful molecules are present in newly engineered crop varieties. Also, no agro corp. wants the Toyota stigma or a three mile island label. A dangerous GMO would be hard to live down given the current level of mistrust of GE crops and large corporations. GE varietis are much safer than varieties produced by conventional genetic breeding because they have undergone extensive testing to verify their safety. My hope is that the organic farmers and the sustainable agriculture folks will look into this biology and adopt GE seeds as they are engineered to produce the most nutritious and non-allergenic foods.
John Tjostem

DocForesight said...

@John T -- We can thank one of our fellow Scandinavians for helping to solve (or at least ameliorate) the food supply challenge. Norman Borlaug passed away last fall with hardly a mention in the MSM, yet he has been attributed to have literally saved millions of lives through his pioneering work on crop plant genetics and drought-resistant or pest-resistant varieties.

Human ingenuity is nearly boundless and there will always be someone who has his or her fellow man in mind when they pursue a problem to solve.

BTW, snakker du Norsk?

Anonymous said...

We in Northeast Iowa are really proud of our two Nobel laureates Norman Borlag and John Mott. I have walked over the Borlag farm on which he grew up. The question is, how can our communtiy assist the family to best utilize this farm to memorialize the green revolution which he fostered?

Jeg snakker litt Norsk men ikke bra.

John Tjostem

LarryD said...

In almost any area you care to look at "business as usual" is rapid and continual change. This is what makes the mentality at TOD such a farce.

Soylent nails it, the continuous adaption renders all of their prediction tools useless.

They also fall into the trap of thinking that reserve estimates are ceilings when they are floors, i.e., an estimate of 5 million metric tons of X means that there is no less than 5 million metric tons recoverable w/current tech at current prices.

And if we can ever start tapping Earth passing asteroids, even the estimates of resources available become less meaningful.

Alex P. said...

just curious how much uranium and thorium is in a, say, cubic meter of ordinary rocks ?

David Doty said...

The vision and scientific brilliance of individual scientists and engineers over the past two centuries have consistently made the pessimists wrong with respect to social and technical progress. Unfortunately, the pessimists will eventually be right. The question is when.

The Club of Rome in the 1960s didn’t appreciate the vast oil finds in the Middle East, or the coming “Green Revolution” in crop yields, or the growth potential of nuclear energy and hydropower in the developing world.

Colin Campbell, in the early 1990’s, didn’t appreciate that technical advances would make it practical to produce an enormous amount of deep-water oil in the first two decades of this century.

The Post Carbon Institute (Julian Darley, Richard Heinberg...) from their vantage point in 2003 didn’t anticipate hydraulic fracturing, rapid growth in LNG from stranded gas, and rapid exploitation of tar sands.

But this is March 2010, and the price of oil has doubled in the last year. That should be telling us something. The president of Petrobras thinks we’ll see Peak Oil this year. The distinguished study group commissioned by Richard Branson thinks we’ll see Peak Oil in mid 2015. The EIA thinks it will be after 2030. I think Branson’s study has nailed it with respect to the timing of Peak Oil.

So what can we expect as we approach peak oil, even as the number of cars in service globally grows at about 10% annually?

Mainstream pundits seem oblivious to the fact that the global oil market is over 15 times the size of the global LNG market on an energy basis. Natural gas will probably show only “moderate” price inflation (20%/yr) for another 18 months as we work through a temporary glut in supply. After that, we can expect spot prices for LNG in many importing ports to rise close to that for crude oil on an energy basis, at least during the winter.

At 30% annual inflation, oil would be at $240/bbl (or $40/GJ) in the spring of 2014. LNG could be three times its current price by the winter of 2014-15, or at least by the following winter.

Nuclear energy won’t stave off this immanent transport-fuel-price Armageddon, and neither will solar, biofuels, or biomass. The primary problem with nuclear is that it is effectively controlled by monopolies in most of developed, democratic countries, and the barriers to entry by new players are prohibitive. Only wind can really have a significant global impact over the next decade, as we show in the up-to-date, well researched paper (with over 110 recent references) we will present at the spring ASME ES conference in May. (The detailed abstract will soon be posted on the DotyEnergy website.)

We foresee a very difficult adjustment period between 2014 and 2020, but real answers to sustainable, competitive energy are being worked on by a few groups, and this transformative work should begin to be heard above the noise over the next few years. So the outlook beyond 2020 is not bleak, just different from current prevailing “wisdom”.

Our WindFuels will be a major part of a sustainable future. Excess off-peak wind energy (or nuclear energy) may be used to synthesize standard liquid fuels, such as gasoline and jet fuel, from CO2 and H2O. Simulations have shown that innovations should make it practical to reduce CO2 to CO at 70% of theoretical efficiency limits. When combined with other process advances, it should then be possible to synthesize hydrocarbons and alcohols from point-source CO2 and off-peak clean grid energy (wind or nuclear) at system efficiencies in the range of 51-59%. The cost of the tanks for storing energy in jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel is only $0.02/kWhr. The cost of storing vast amounts of energy in batteries, compressed air, or flywheels would be several thousand times greater.

How long it takes for WindFuels to become a major component of the energy/climate solution depends in part on how long it takes for those in control of major funding decisions to begin to appreciate that a truly sustainable paradigm is needed.

Cyrill Joseph Landau said...

Where the hell do these people get their numbers from? Most Geologists and resource experts will tell you these people are way off on energy. Although becoming a farmer or an energy engineer/geologist during a time of resource scarcity and a period of turbulence in the resource markets can be a very lucrative career. Although most of the people who go into these fields do believe in the gloom and decide to do something about it to avert a collapse.

Whether agricultural commodities can be reasonably assured in the next century is a little questionable. It would possibly require hydroponics and "seawater greenhouses" and OTEC enabled ocean engineering to increase seafood protein availability. Or possibly another source of nourishment. But there is always the transhumanist claim that we will soon ascend human biology.

These people are narcissistic crackheads, Charles. You are too intelligent and thoughtful to even allow these people to take up any of your time. Our goal in the nuclear community is to be more like Buckminster Fuller and come up with imaginative solutions to global problems and to act on our own.

Anti-nukes Hero---> Amory Lovins, a douchebag

Our Heroes ----------> Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler, Buckminster Fuller, Norman Borlaug, Fritz Haber (minus the development of nerve gas)

Soylent said...

Alex P.; average crustal abundance of uranium is approximately 3 ppm(3 gram per tonne) and 10 ppm(10 grams per tonne) respectively.

Continental crust has an average density of 2700 kg/m^3.(continents are the lighter froth floating ontop of denser mantle). That's ~35 grams of actinides per cubic metre of average crust.

If you completely fission those 35 grams of actinides you get an amount of heat equivalent to burning ~450 barrels of oil(i.e. your average rock contains as much energy as ~20 times it's weight in oil).

If you want to do some fun calculations yourself, the relevant figures are:

6.022e23 atoms per mol.
~232 grams of thorium per mol. ~238 grams of uranium per mol. ~190 MeV usable energy per fission event(~10 MeV gets taken by a ghostly antineutrino that just flies off into space)
1.602e-19 J per eV.
~6.1 GJ per barrel of oil(HHV).
~33 GJ per tonne of anthracite coal(10 to 20 GJ per tonne for lignite coal).

Alex P. said...

Thanx soylent - I assume you mean 3 ppm of *uranium* amd 10 ppm of *thorium*. That means there is the energy equivalent of about 100-150 tonns of good coal in only one cubic meter of rocks, quite impressive !

By the way, I wonder how much rocks has to be extracted in ordinary coal minning to produce one single tonn of coal ?

Yogi said...

“The president of Petrobras thinks we’ll see Peak Oil this year”

No, he did not predict peak oil in 2010. See the reply from Petrobras on the Oil Drum:

The 2015 peak oil forecast is also likely to prove to be too pessimistic.

Rod Adams said...

Charles - terrific post. Have you had a chance to read Stewart Brand's recently published book titled Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. He discusses many of the same themes that you mention.

Brand was an Ehrlich student at one time, but he has done a lot of thinking and growing over the years.

Stephen M. St. Onge said...

Mr. Barton, the links concerning "hydraulic fracturing" and "in situ leaching" are busted. They need a letter'h' at the beginning. Also, both links, once an 'h' is added, go to the same article.

Otherwise, good post.

M. Simon said...

Polywell Fusion Progress:


M. Simon said...

Peak Oil is not as serious as it seems.

With all the new natural gas being discovered we will not be seeing a gas peak for at least 100 years.

Yogi said...

The main problem with peak oil is finding substitutes for transportation fuel.

The most efficient substitute is to convert as much of the transportation infrastructure as possible to run on electricity.

For transportation methods such as air travel which cannot be electrified the best option is to use nuclear energy to produce synthetic hydrocarbon fuels from CO2 and hydrogen.


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