Since the beginning of time, right-leaning technophiles have yearned to blow up suns

by Henry on February 14, 2005

Whenever anyone raises the possibility that resource shortages may have serious social consequences in public, they’re almost certain to run into flak from someone citing Julian Simon’s “bet”:http://www.answers.com/topic/wager-between-julian-simon-and-paul-ehrlich with Paul Ehrlich on metal prices. Thus, Jim Henley, in response to my previous “post”:https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/003168.html on Gregg Easterbrook and Jared Diamond says:

bq. Right-leaning technophiles adopt this posture because, in our experience, scientific (or scientistic) pessimism has proven itself repeatedly, embarassingly wrong, from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich to the Club of Rome. We saw Julian Simon win the Great Dispute of the 1970s, and are inclined to think the Julian Simons of today and tomorrow will win their own disputes.

But what I suspect Jim doesn’t know (and what I didn’t know until I read it yesterday in Jared Diamond’s Collapse), is why Simon was quite so confident that metal shortages weren’t a problem. Over to Diamond:

bq. There is an abundance of errors of the latter sort (anti-environmentalist predictions that have proved wrong): e.g. overly optimistic predictions that the Green Revolution would already have solved the world’s hunger problems; the prediction of the economist Julian Simon that we could feed the world’s population as it continues to grow for the next 7 billion years; and Simon’s prediction “Copper can be made from other elements” and thus there is no risk of a copper shortage.

Now Diamond himself exaggerates a little when he says one page later that copper cannot be made from other elements by definition, because it itself is an element. More precisely, we could make industrial quantities of copper from other elements if we had the power and the inclination to whizz around the universe “creating supernovas”:http://www.vectorsite.net/tastga4.html. Quite why we would want to create more copper if we had these superpowers is a question that I’ll leave to our readers’ ingenuity and imagination.

Simon’s prediction is far and away the most impressive example that I’ve ever seen of lunatic technological optimism in support of a transparent political agenda. I don’t think that even the boyos over at Flack Central Station would have the chutzpah to make this claim; Easterbrook’s belief that we don’t have to worry about material shortages because we can spread across the galaxy is strictly minor league stuff in comparison. More seriously, Diamond makes a strong case that a qualified scientific pessimism (along with a qualified optimism about the ability of human beings to respond to environmental problems and resource limits) is the appropriate attitude to take. Otherwise, we face a very serious risk of environmental collapse – not the end of humanity, but some very serious problems all the same. Jim should read Diamond’s book (we live quite near each other; I’m happy to lend him my copy) – while I doubt that it would convert him, I do think that it would give him some serious food for thought.

{ 147 comments }

1

Des von Bladet 02.14.05 at 3:24 pm

Foolish leftiste!

You forget that nuclear fusion is – as it always has been and always will be – five (5) to ten (10) years away, so we can manufacture our own miniature suns and then we can work on home-brew supernovas without going anywhere and then we can have all the copper our hearts desire bwahahahaha!

Stick that in your Islamofasciste-sympathising pipe and smoke it!

2

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 3:33 pm

People patch together slogan-like generalized cover stories out of scientific or historical materials and then claim that they’re thinking scientifically. Henley’s is the optimistic version, but I used to have a friend who called himself a “realist” whenever he was being knee-jerk pessimistic or cynical.

The claim I remember by Simon is infintie substitutability: aluminum for copper. In the area of materials and metals that will work for a long time, but substitutes for topsoil, clean air, and clean fesh water are hard to even imagine. Many schemes depend on infinite energy based on fusion or solar cells in space. One scheme, making all the Arctic rivers flow sow south, looks like a disaster in the making.

Someone should make a collection of falsely optimistic futurological predictions. One falsification seems to be here: epidimiologists are now talking about “the post-antibiotic age”, as resistent bacteria evolve.

Ilya Prigogine did have a list of scientific discoveries which made things impossible: surpassing the speed of light, Goedel’s proof, squaring the circle, pepetual motion, etc. Many of them, but not all, ere aspects of the entropy law.

Hermann Daly (“Steady-state Economics”) tried to write an economics of no-growth sustainability. Apparently the profession was aggressively unreceptive.

3

ed_finnerty 02.14.05 at 3:45 pm

Does Jared Diamond indicate where this quote of Simon’s come from. It seems quite inconsistent with his explanation in The Ultimate Resource II. That is,

“…we have additional ways to meet our needs. For example, by using fiber optics instead of copper wiring, by developing new ways to exploit low grades of copper ore previously thought not usable, and by developing new energy sources such as nuclear power to help produce copper. , perhaps by extracting it from seawater.”

I see no sign of crackpottism in this description. In fact, if Simon made this arguement in is not particularly relevant to his main message for future resourse abundance.

4

Des von Bladet 02.14.05 at 3:55 pm

Ed: If you have a quote of someone saying something other than they are quoted as saying, it’s a good starting hypothesis that it is a different quote.

Luckily, Google can also be made from other metals:

To express his notion that natural resources are limitless, Simon said in a 1980 article in Science that “Even the total weight of the earth is not a theoretical limit to the amount of copper that might be available to earthlings in the future… Only the weight of the universe… would be such a theoretical limit… because copper can be made from other metals.”

Unfortunately, _Science_ is a resource which it is prohibitively expensive to extract from its deposits (“libraries”), so we may never know if Simon really really said what people – but only Leftistes, after all! – keep insisting on quoting him as saying.

5

Simstim 02.14.05 at 3:58 pm

DvB, they’re holding off on the nuclear fusion until they’ve developed the AIs that will use up all that power. AI, unfortunately, is always 10 years away.

6

Des von Bladet 02.14.05 at 4:01 pm

simstim: Ten (10) years away? We thought it was twenty (20)! Clearly there have been great improvements, if only in forecasting!

7

Elliott Oti 02.14.05 at 4:04 pm

Hmmm.

I think the biggest trouble with some enthusiastic technophiles is that they’re sometimes part of the problem, not the solution. Big Problems Can Be Solved (TM) but you do have to take them seriously. There’s no free lunch: you can’t claim that science will solve all our big problems eventually, but oppose all current efforts to solve them.

After all, remember the dinosaur pundits of the Jurassic. “Science” they said “will make asteroids irrelevant”, at the same time pooh-poohing as “demented mammalofascist ideologues” the dino scientists pushing forth the Asteroid Control Policy. It did work, as a guiding principle, for quite a while.

8

jet 02.14.05 at 4:05 pm

By simple (relatively) deregulation of the public electricity market we could cut price and useage of electricty by ~50%. So if you are putting money on how the future is going to turn out, I wouldn’t bet on the crackpots in the 70’s who said all the growth was behind us.

http://www.primaryenergy.com/articles/reports/The%20Case%20for%20Decentralized%20Generation%20of%20Electricity.pdf

9

Dr Pretorius 02.14.05 at 4:07 pm

in our experience, scientific (or scientistic) pessimism has proven itself repeatedly, embarassingly wrong,…

This sort of inference (going from the above sort of statement to the conclusion that current pessimism is somewhat unfounded) is possibly one of my favorite examples of bad logic.

This is mostly because all predictions to date of my own death (and the death of anyone I currently know) have proven rather dramatically wrong — therefore: I shall live forever!

10

Simstim 02.14.05 at 4:13 pm

DvB, I was trying to take into account the time-lag inherent in CT’s commenting system.

11

jet 02.14.05 at 4:17 pm

Oh, I can’t post that link without giving mad props to http://ergosphere.blogspot.com the biggity bomb of energy resource sites.

12

ed_finnerty 02.14.05 at 4:24 pm

Thanks DVB for the quote source.

The quote I provided seems to better represent Simon’s arguement that we will not need to build our own suns to get copper. If the crux of the arguement against Simon’s position that resource depletion is not a likely source for a decline in quality of life is that we can’t make our own suns then it seems to be a relatively weak point of view.

13

david 02.14.05 at 4:32 pm

I’ve never understood why you can’t bring the market worshippers aboard by pitching pessimism as risk management. Looked like it would work for global warming, but we may soon see constitutional amendments forbidding lawsuits seeking damages for unintended consequences.

14

jet 02.14.05 at 4:35 pm

What a bunch of tards, propping up Simon as a straw man. He may be over the top, but that doesn’t mean technological optimism is wrong. We already have underutilized technology to solve most, if not all, of the world’s problems.

Dorks.

15

Nicholas Weininger 02.14.05 at 4:36 pm

Henry, when did Jim claim that Simon et al. had never been over-optimistic? That’s not, as I see it, the meat of his argument. The meat is that the Simons of the world have been closer to the truth than the Ehrlichs of the world– and one piece of evidence for that is that on the resource question Simon was, in fact, right, and Ehrlich was wrong.

Besides which, the context provided in the quote Des gives suggests strongly that you’re reading Simon uncharitably. He’s talking about theoretical upper bounds on copper supplies– i.e. bounds which would hold even given tremendous-but-plausible advances in technology. Large-scale controlled fusion, for example, is certainly one such advance; it’s not anywhere close, but it’s not magic either.

Moreover, Simon had plenty of other reasons for believing copper was unlikely to run out that required no assumptions about making it from other metals. And even if he was over-optimistic about our far-future capabilities, that doesn’t invalidate those other reasons.

16

Des von Bladet 02.14.05 at 4:37 pm

Ed: However, the original and now unchallenged quote is more instructive in establishing the original point that Simon is a batshit techno-pollyanna with few if any scruples. Nobody, so far as I know, has claimed that he is incapable of lucid moments.

Would you also like to endorse the “seven (7) billion years” claim, or would you prefer to dispute that he said it?

17

james 02.14.05 at 4:43 pm

Environmentalists have the same issue in the opposite direction. Taking a current problem and assuming an environmental catastrophe. The proponents of the “Population Bomb” still have egg on their face.

18

MCMC 02.14.05 at 4:46 pm

A problem that I’ve repeatedly felt is overlooked in the limits/no limits debate are the consequences that occur in the process of proving that limits don’t (yet) exist: if we’re running low on a resource, there’s probably some lode of it in a developing country that some transnational corporation can finance and extract. Great! We’ve got more of that resource. Never mind the havoc that is wreaked in the process, we’ve proven there are no limits!

So for the ‘limits’ folks: how about concentrating more on what happens on the way to finding those ‘limits’ instead of hypothesizing Malthusian/Ehrlichian absolutes.

19

ed_finnerty 02.14.05 at 4:50 pm

DVB – my understanding is that Simon said he was miquoted and meant 7 million years. I don’t think the difference is material in interpreting the quote.

By the way, I didn’t and don’t dispute the quote, I just wasn’t previously aware of it. In fact, the quote seems innocuous enough.

Do you dispute his arguement or just dislike it on “batshit” grounds. I don’t see how this reflects his scruples.

20

JP 02.14.05 at 4:52 pm

There’s no free lunch: you can’t claim that science will solve all our big problems eventually, but oppose all current efforts to solve them.

I think the response to this would be that the proper investment in science will take place on its own once it becomes worth it for market to do so: i.e. once the costs of the status quo rise to the point that they become unacceptable. Thus, government subsidization of science is bad policy because it is wasteful and unnecessary. The typical textbook example here is that the Japanese government heavily subsidized the development of HDTV in the 1980s, but got no return on its investment because private American firms later decided to invest in HD as well and reaped the benefits themselves without needing any subsidization of their own.

For the record, this is all just devil’s advocacy.

21

Nabakov 02.14.05 at 5:03 pm

Fuck all this chin music, where’s my jetpack?

22

Nabakov 02.14.05 at 5:10 pm

“,,,that the proper investment in science will take place on its own once it becomes worth it for market to do so.”

Yeah, I remember all the speculation in lunar real estate fuelling the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

Wait, or was that Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon”.

It’s been so long now.

23

Jack 02.14.05 at 5:14 pm

Simon’s more plausible arguments depend upon markets determing the price of assets and providing a smooth transition.

There is now less oil than there was, in real terms it is cheaper, interest rates are lower so the value of future consumption is greater and the rate of consumption is still rising. What kind of a market is that?

24

elliott oti 02.14.05 at 5:22 pm

I think the response to this would be that the proper investment in science will take place on its own once it becomes worth it for market to do so: i.e. once the costs of the status quo rise to the point that they become unacceptable.

Oh that’s a response I share myself 95% of the time (although I do sometimes question the usefulness of the “wait until the market deems it unnaceptable” approach for truly catrastrophic events).

In the long run most problems will eventually sort themselves out, but then again, in the long run we will all be … joining the Singularity anyway …

25

Des von Bladet 02.14.05 at 5:23 pm

Ed: From my previous source, again:

Then in a 1995 essay in the San Francisco Chronicle, [Simon] challenged ecologists to bet that “any trend pertaining to material welfare” will get worse. Paul and Stephen Schneider replied that they were willing to bet on 15 items, including agricultural soil, fisheries, the number of species extant, sulfur dioxide air pollution in Asia, ozone, and global temperatures. But Simon refused to accept the wager.

Perhaps we really have got 6 and a bit million years of yummy vat-grown foods and sheltering indoors to look forward to, but his bluff seems to have been called here…

Personally, we will be dissatisfied with any future in which a Deus Ex Technologia doesn’t provide us with a pony, too.

26

peter ramus 02.14.05 at 5:30 pm

…a pony made of SUNS!

27

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 5:40 pm

Jet, you lame, egregious creepo — I still frequently see Simon cited favorably in the technophile futurological press. He is not a straw man.

Simon said at one place that resources are infinite by analogy with the infinite number of points in a line. (Yes, he really said that. I’ve looked it up several times).

But if you want to agree that Simon is nuts and that nothing he says should be taken seriously, then we have nothing to argue about.

In the case of Simon’s “points on a line” statement, I suspect amphetamine use. All of your ideas look so darn **beautiful** while the amphetamine is working.

28

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 5:48 pm

Ehrlich made a mistake using the supply of metals as a key point of his argument. Metals are indeed substitutable, and with materials science, increasingly so.

I often hear futurological optimists speaking as if there were a lot of untapped resources available, but there is very little uncultivated land left (mostly in war-torn areas). The long-term productivity of the sea and the tropical rainforests is quite limited.

29

mw 02.14.05 at 5:52 pm

I think what people miss in Simon’s argument is that it is an essentially bottom-up argument. When a particular reasource looks threatened, Simon says that ways will be found to get around it. What ways? Nobody knows ahead of time–some of the changes that have huge impacts are quite unpredictable. For example, fifteen years ago who would have predicted the impact of digital cameras on the need for silver?

Along the same lines, I’d argue we’ve hardly scratched the surface with respect to extremely low-energy telecommuting replacing energy-intensive (and time intensive) physical commuting. Same thing with respect to video-based conferencing vs jet-travel based conferencing.

You don’t have to posit space travel or home-fusion reactors to think that unpredictable technological adaptations will arise as needed.

But this kind of thinking seems to make left-leaners very nervous. It seems to me that they tend to think we should empanel groups of experts to review our problems, pick the most promising directions, and invest billions of tax dollars in R&D, so we’ll be ‘ready’ when the time comes. Big problems, in their view, require centrally-plannned, centrally-funded solutions.

30

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 6:04 pm

Finally, futurological optimists are often dogmatic pessismists about social responses, above all governmental or charitable responses. If you look at the big improvements in health and nutrition, for example, over the last 100-200 years, you will see a mix of science and technology, markets, and government itervention. Lots of government intervention.

Likewise, many technophiles poo-poo population limitation, even though it seems to be an obvious, necessary response to chnages in mortality rates.

But the vast majority of technophiles are knee-jerk, Know-Nothing, anti-government libertarians.

Can population continue to grow indefinitely into the future, while the overall standard of living also continues to improve? Even mainstream liberal economists are embarassed by that question(and futurist tehnophiles even more so).

To say “yes” is a risky proposition that needs support, but technophiles simply assume it and accuse anyone who disagrees of Luddism.

31

ed_finnerty 02.14.05 at 6:06 pm

DVB

Julian Simon explained his refusal to take the bet in an interview in Skeptic magazine. In essense he refused the bet because some of the 15 criteria were not directly related to human welfare or could not be adequately measured.

There are lots of details on the internets.

John. His arguement about the infinity and points on a line was an analogy to the practical infinity or the immeasurability of the size of the resource. Not that I think that Julian Simon would have cared, but he could have avoided a lot of the fulminating broadsides by being a little more precise in what he said. I get the feeling he made these arguements just to set reactionaries like you off.

32

eudoxis 02.14.05 at 6:07 pm

Quote from Simon in Science 208, 1431-1437 on page 1435:

“But the future quantities of a natural resource such as copper cannot be calculated even in principle, because of new lodes, new methods of mining copper, and variations in grade of copper lodes; because copper can be made from other metals; and because of the vagueness of the boundaries within which copper can be found- including the sea and other planets.”

Technically speaking, although not practical, there are a couple of fairly stable copper isotope decay products from zinc.

33

Doctor Slack 02.14.05 at 6:17 pm

But this kind of thinking seems to make left-leaners very nervous. . . Big problems, in their view, require centrally-plannned, centrally-funded solutions.

And as we all know, one can never really solve big problems with “centrally-planned, centrally-funded solutions;” the American (and Soviet, FTM) space programmes were just elaborate hoaxes, as was virtually every independent attempt to split the atom up to and including the Manhattan Project. It’s completely unthinkable why people would have any faith at all in the efficacy of government-funded R&D, isn’t it?

I really, truly pray for the day when the IT community figures out what a swindle the “two-legs-good, government-bad” school of libertarianism is. Is it so impossible to imagine trying solutions in combination instead of these goddamned Manichaean oppositions of Good/Market vs. Evil/Government?

34

Des von Bladet 02.14.05 at 6:25 pm

Ed said:

There are lots of details on the internets.

I believe the Timber’s troll-in-residence Jet has a business model patent on backing up this claim with exactly zero (0) links; you will surely be hearing from its lawyers.

35

bob 02.14.05 at 6:27 pm

For the record, the article by Julian Simon appeared in Science, volume 208, pages 1431-1437 (June 27, 1980); the statement in question was a paragraph at the bottom of page 1435 and top of page 1436.

In a reply to criticism, published in the 19 December 1980 issue (vol. 210, page 1306) Simon says “… I am not in error in principle, as Holden et al. note; rather, they claim it is ‘preposterous’ because it is impractical now.” So he clings to his “Captains of the Universe” baloney, although he also, correctly, points out that this was not the main thrust of his article.

36

amblongus 02.14.05 at 6:33 pm

But the vast majority of technophiles are knee-jerk, Know-Nothing, anti-government libertarians.

Obviously you’ve missed the

‘nexus for progressive transhumanists, or as we say “for democratic transhumanists, nanosocialists, revolutionary singularitarians, non-anthropocentric personhood theorists, radical futurists, leftist extropians, bioutopians and biopunks, socialist-feminist cyborgs, transgenders, body modifiers, basic income advocates, world federalists, agents of the Culture and the Cassini Division, Viridians and technoGaians – transmitting a sexy, high-tech vision of a radically democratic future”‘

at Changesurfer.com.

37

Joe O 02.14.05 at 6:37 pm

Diamond is mischaraterising Simon’s position. Simon’s main position is that material substitutions means that you never really “run out” of a lot of materials. The fact that you would never really need to produce copper in fusion reactors doesn’t hurt Simon’s main point.

But it isn’t like there is going to be an infinite amount of gasoline for cars. What do I care if petrochemicals are still available for higher value lubricating uses if there is no way for me to get to work.

The real debate should be on the use and value of R&D to lay the groundwork for any future switch in technology. I don’t share mw’s faith. We should be working now to avoid the problems that we can foresee.

38

digamma 02.14.05 at 6:54 pm

Likewise, many technophiles poo-poo population limitation, even though it seems to be an obvious, necessary response to chnages in mortality rates.

Your beloved European social democracies don’t have population limitation, but their birth rates are miniscule. There are myriad causes for the drop, but China-style limits aren’t one.

39

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 6:57 pm

Simon’s analogy still strikes me as loony. Points on a line are imaginary. Darn right he could have avoided some broadsides if he had avoided making loony statements. Stuff like that is where “bat-shit crazy” comes from.

I believe that I have seen Simon’s statement translated into economic terminology in order to make it seem more plausible. To me this just shifts the problem; economics does not actually deal with physical resources as physical things, but just as abstract economic inputs, etc., assuming a priori that the resources will always be available at some price.

Economists and futurologists aggressively ignore physical sciences like economic geography, demographics, agronomy, oceanography, and climatology whenever they threaten abstract economic theory and the economists’ Utopia.

40

jet 02.14.05 at 7:00 pm

Des von Bladet,
I posted a link to my electricity claim, so before you call names, perhaps you should attend that reading comprehension seminar and familarize yourself with what a link looks like (sometimes they are just pasted http addresses).

But I will repeat, simply upgrading electricity production to 1973 technology and decentralizing power production would cut electricity consumption by over 50% while also lowering costs a similiar amount. This is a great example of our energy “crisis”.

41

Uncle Kvetch 02.14.05 at 7:13 pm

I really, truly pray for the day when the IT community figures out what a swindle the “two-legs-good, government-bad” school of libertarianism is.

Not me…there are few things as delicious as watching someone use the internet as a forum on which to claim that government-funded scientific research is useless.

Oh, and Jet: before you take umbrage at being called names, you might want to reflect on the fact that in your first contribution to this thread you referred to everyone who disagreed with you as “dorks” and “tards.” It’s kinda hard to see you as a victim this time.

42

roger 02.14.05 at 7:22 pm

It seems to me that Simon’s argument should be seen in the context of the often re-iterated libertarian claim that the U.S. suffers from too much regulation.

Surely, the eco doomsters of the seventies might have motivated some of that regulation, which in turn motivated the technologies that substituted for copper, or better ways to use copper.

Now we have a chance to watch, as in a laboratory, a system without the eco-doom effect (i.e. environmental regulation): China. And what we are seeing is copper prices inflating like oil in the seventies. It is pretty easy to see: technology and regulation actually are imbricated, while societies that devolve regulation into the laissez faire market (for regulation emerges, one way or another, enforced by the state or by coporate monopolies) will soon strain and then break their resource limits.

43

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 7:25 pm

Is the “since the beginning of time” thingie in the title a parody of something. Googling doesn’t find anything obvious.

44

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 7:26 pm

Is the “since the beginning of time” thingie in the title a parody of something. Googling doesn’t find anything obvious.

45

mw 02.14.05 at 7:30 pm

And as we all know, one can never really solve big problems with “centrally-planned, centrally-funded solutions;” the American (and Soviet, FTM) space programmes were just elaborate hoaxes, as was virtually every independent attempt to split the atom up to and including the Manhattan Project. It’s completely unthinkable why people would have any faith at all in the efficacy of government-funded R&D, isn’t it?

I did not say that you can *never* really solve big problems with central planning. But the wasteful, harmful failure are legion (collectivized agriculture anyone?) When governments make mistakes, they make really big ones and are very slow to change course.

The problem with a centralized solution to resource problems is making a single, correct decision about what the most pressing problem is, what solution to pursue, which method to adopt, and so on.

Should the government invest its billions in R&D for hydrogen-powered cars? ‘Clean coal’? Advanced fission reactors? Fusion? Wind power? Solar panels? Bio fuels? Or conservation technologies? And what if the experts guess wrong? (And worse, what if those billions get directed not to the most promising technologies but toward those technologies who backers have the best political connections?)

46

roger 02.14.05 at 7:32 pm

PS — this is why libertarianism so radically misunderstand the social welfare state. That state is not inevitably moving towards the abolition of capitalism — it couldn’t exist without capitalism. Rather, it uses the profit motive as a means of directing capitilism in progressive directions it would otherwise have no motive to move in. Companies, to preserve profit and survive, have to figure out ways of complying with government regulations that prevent them from sluffing off costs onto third parties. They wouldn’t have that motive if profit making was abolished, nor would they have it if profit making legally transcended every other social goal.

47

jet 02.14.05 at 7:41 pm

Uncle Kvetch,

Can anyone really take umbrage at being called a dork or a tard? Hardly names that install a sense of hostility. And I wasn’t claiming victomhood status, merely pointing out that while my claims have yet to be attacked, his claims are provably false by merely scrolling up.

And I would have thought you would have taken my side on this one, because as I’ve stated before in other threads, the mis-management of the electrical industry has thrown me solidly behind Kyoto.

But either way, my point still stands (uncontested except from name calling) that there are plenty of existing potential solutions to the world’s problems.

48

Walt Pohl 02.14.05 at 7:42 pm

John: It’s from the Simpsons. Mr. Burns says “Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to blot out the sun.” He then blots out the sun so that he has a monopoly on light generation in Springfield.

49

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 7:49 pm

Is the “since the beginning of time” thingie in the title a parody of something? Googling doesn’t find anything obvious.

50

Joe O 02.14.05 at 8:00 pm

Centralized planning of R&D isn’t as big a problem as mw pretends it is. Basic research just wouldn’t be done without the government. We need to lay the groundwork for future private inovation.

Centralized planning of production is a big problem because it ignores price signals, but we can’t rely on private industry to do important yet unprofitable research.

51

John Emerson 02.14.05 at 8:06 pm

Being called a dork or a tard would offend me no more than being called a lame, egregious creepo would. I just love it when someone else intitiates the namecalling.

52

dsquared 02.14.05 at 8:20 pm

On a similar market-based wager, I have an inflation adjusted £1000 that says that insurance premia for buildings on the Ruhr flood-plain will be higher, in real terms, in twenty years’ time; just in case any global warming sceptics fancy a flutter.

53

Doctor Slack 02.14.05 at 8:23 pm

mw: Hmmm, last time I checked, neither collectivized agriculture nor de-kulakization were R&D programmes — if the wasteful, tragic failures of government-funded R&D are legion, why not pick one of them as an example?

Obviously I’m not arguing that all scientific decisions should be centralized — as the part of my post about a combination of solutions should make clear — but I’ve never been impressed by the libertarian penchant for arguing against a caricature of GOSPLAN every time “government” comes up.

When governments make mistakes, they make really big ones and are very slow to change course.

Oh, sure. Britain’s privatization of public rail, for instance. ;-)

The problem with a centralized
solution to resource problems is making a single, correct decision about what the most pressing problem is. . .

Only if you imagine that government-funded R&D should by definition focus on making a single, correct decision, and that it should by definition be applied to the absolute exclusion of anything else. But you know these are both strawmen when talking about the “left-leaning” folks you’re attempting to characterize, right?

54

Jeremiah J. 02.14.05 at 8:26 pm

Simon has indeed said that copper can be made from other elements, and you are right to point out that this does us little good in the near future, while this process would be ridiculously costly (though it would not require supernovae).

But in fairness, Simon also points out that there is no *absolute human need* for the metal copper. It is used for a variety of things in which suitable substitutes are available. The are other kinds of conductors, etc. Computer chips are currently made out of silicon, but they could be made out of other materials. There is no rock solid, everlasting demand for copper or silicon (which could run up disasterously against diminishing supply), but rather for the things which these materials do for us (allow us to feed, clothe outselves, communicate, get around, etc.).

I think this is Simon’s point, and while I don’t think it necessarily warrants his limitless faith in markets, the point has not been adequately addressed here.

55

Jeremiah J. 02.14.05 at 8:27 pm

Simon has indeed said that copper can be made from other elements, and you are right to point out that this does us little good in the near future, while this process would be ridiculously costly (though it would not require supernovae).

But in fairness, Simon also points out that there is no *absolute human need* for the metal copper. It is used for a variety of things in which suitable substitutes are available. The are other kinds of conductors, etc. Computer chips are currently made out of silicon, but they could be made out of other materials. There is no rock solid, everlasting demand for copper or silicon (which could run up disasterously against diminishing supply), but rather for the things which these materials do for us (allow us to feed, clothe outselves, communicate, get around, etc.).

I think this is Simon’s point, and while I don’t think it necessarily warrants his limitless faith in markets, the point has not been adequately addressed here.

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mw 02.14.05 at 8:32 pm

Centralized planning of production is a big problem because it ignores price signals, but we can’t rely on private industry to do important yet unprofitable research.

In the long term, unprofitable research is not a good thing–if it never pays off, it was a mistake. But in the shorter term, private industry makes enormous investments in R&D that may or may not pay off–pharmaceutical companies, are an obvious example, but so are Toyota’s investment in hybrid technology, Google’s recently announced investment in the digitization of university libraries, Microsoft’s investment in the XBox platform, and so on.

Any successful effort to solve resource shortage problems would have the potential for enormous profits, so we have every reason to expect industry to make relevant investments as long as there’s any reasonable chance for success.

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mw 02.14.05 at 8:43 pm

“The problem with a centralized
solution to resource problems is making a single, correct decision about what the most pressing problem is. . .”

Only if you imagine that government-funded R&D should by definition focus on making a single, correct decision, and that it should by definition be applied to the absolute exclusion of anything else. But you know these are both strawmen when talking about the “left-leaning” folks you’re attempting to characterize, right?

Point taken–the government does not necessarily have to decide on a single approach, but it does tend to choose ‘standards’ and make various ‘this and not that’ decisions that have the effect of channeling money into a small number of possibilities (even when it is not a single approach).

And I notice that you did not address the question of research money going to those with the best connections. I worked briefly with some folks who made a living on defense department grants–the question of who was going to be funded and who was not was intensely political. There was very much an ‘old boys and girls’ network.

And this doesn’t even bring up the pork-barrel issues of powerful congress members who will undoubtedly try (and succeed) in biasing funding of research in order to benefit their districts independently of scientific merit. Should the U.S. invest in ‘clean coal’ technology. Well, if Robert Byrd has anything to say about it, it will.

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Xavier 02.14.05 at 8:47 pm

Simon merely said that it was theoretically possible (if commercially impractical) to make copper from other elements. He also listed a number of practical methods of increasing copper production. Diamond seriously misrepresents Simon’s position when he suggests that Simon believes that creating copper from other elements is a reasonable method of copper production. I fail to see anything wrong with that statement. There is a big difference between a discussion of what is theoretically possible and what is feasible.

The only good argument against Simon in this thread is that he used a fairly bad analogy when he talked about infinite points on a line. That’s not his best moment, but it’s not really a problem with his substantive argument and I don’t think it does much to damage his credibility.

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george 02.14.05 at 8:53 pm

your post title reminded me of this “mr. show” clip:

“We are flag waving, God loving, troop supporting, red blooded Americans who simply feel that America can, MUST and WILL blow up the moon!!!”

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John Emerson 02.14.05 at 8:58 pm

Like the points-on-a-line statement, the “making copper from other elements” statement indicates amphetamine rapture. It seemed like a beautiful idea at the time. And both lead one to doubt his judgement about everything else.

Simon’s assumption that there are substitutes for everything also strikes me as Utopian and unjustifiable.

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Doctor Slack 02.14.05 at 9:04 pm

the government does not necessarily have to decide on a single approach, but it does tend to choose ‘standards’ and make various ‘this and not that’ decisions that have the effect of channeling money into a small number of possibilities . . .

True, and in a great many cases it seems to have been a perfectly workable approach. Perhaps this is because the scientific community does some of the work beforehand by doing preliminary research on what the best possibilities could be.

And I notice that you did not address the question of research money going to those with the best connections.

I let this lie simply because I don’t believe influence-peddling through personal connections is confined to the public sector; a purely private-sector driven process would hardly be immune to it (though the precise mechanisms would differ).

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mw 02.14.05 at 9:22 pm

True, and in a great many cases it seems to have been a perfectly workable approach. Perhaps this is because the scientific community does some of the work beforehand by doing preliminary research on what the best possibilities could be.

Yes, and even then it can result in a boondoggle of historic proportions. Rather than the Manhattan Project consider the Concorde. The problem wasn’t that it failed as a government funded R&D project–on its own terms, it was a great success. But the terms were completely wrong. The billions invested resulted in a plane that was technological dead end–it cost a fortune to develop and a fortune to operate, provided minimal benefits and those only to small elite. And it was kept on life support for decades for purely political reasons (and because it was ‘cool’).

I don’t believe influence-peddling through personal connections is confined to the public sector

Of course it isn’t. But I’d argue that the kind of extremely long-term, blue-sky, government program where not having an eye on ‘profit’ isn’t a bug but a feature…is just the kind where influence and pork-barrel politics, and multi-decade, Concorde-style screwups are most likely to occur.

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Ken D. 02.14.05 at 9:43 pm

Both “Population Bomb” (1968) and “Ultimate Resource” (1982) are old enough to be judged by results. I am curious to know if there is anyone out there who has actually read both and still thinks that Erhlich is a genius to be revered and Simon is a loony. I am a greenish progressive who sees shades of gray but thinks Simon gets much the bettor of it.

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Chris Williams 02.14.05 at 9:48 pm

Point of information: Concorde made an operating profit, for British Airways at least. [Once the tiny matter of the development costs was written off.]

This week’s Public Sector Aeroplane Of The Week: the SE5a.

This post was brought to you on DARPA’s internet through CERN’s html – enjoy.

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John Emerson 02.14.05 at 9:59 pm

I haven’t ever read Ehrlich except one magazine article decades ago (NYTM I think). I certainly never worshipped him and his time seems to have passed.

Simon still has followers, and he and they seem loony. Many futurological technophiles seem convinced that the Simon-Ehrlich bet settles all these questions permanently.

The overall longterm argument about population still seems valid to me. 30 years is the very short term in demography, much less ecology. One of the reasons population growth has slowed is that people like Ehrlich convinced people that it should be slowed. In such a case the “prophet of doom” is not refuted, but confirmed. Ehrlich was not a fortune teller or predictive scientist; his message was normative.

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Timothy Burke 02.14.05 at 10:00 pm

Henry draws a far more politically engaged observation out of this than I would. My thought is that this suggests that social scientific futurism from the 1950s-1980s was in and of itself an extremely bounded, historically particular phenomena that has to be understood as an artifact of its times. The problem with doing so is one of entanglement, however: that social science is interwoven into the (usually) more prudential and short-horizon practice that is now the norm. Moreover, that form of futurism unevenly but often powerfully invaded popular consciousness. Just look at how many people are absolutely one hundred percent convinced that fatal population explosions are the inevitable near-term future.

I would say still, however, that Simon came off the better in that bet and in general, and to some extent, Henry is misrepresenting his position on copper, as I understood it. Not that copper could be made from other elements, but that should copper become too scarce, it would be substituted for by metals which were more plentiful and thus cheaper. Which I think is not a ridiculous assertion, though it doesn’t think through the complicated political economies that make some metal extraction possible and other metal extraction vastly more difficult–these are not easily substituted or equivalent to one another as prices or demand shift.

It seems to me that futurism of the heady long-term predictive sort ran aground, hard, on the concrete problem of complexity. Diamond is still running into that problem. He’s using inductive reasoning about past collapses to govern his understanding of the inevitable future, when there’s first off considerable reason to think that post-1750, the rules of the human game became somewhat different (bad and good) and second, because change in complex systems (which human economies and their relationship to environments certainly are) tends to have a nearly-ontological degree of unpredictability to it. If you tried to say, “Look, in all circumstances of resource scarcity combined with run-away overuse of resources, collapse follows”, I could very quickly show you human societies to which that does not apply. Equally, I could show you societies that collapsed on what seem like reasonably comfortable grounds, or that did not overstrip their resource base. Criticality happens, but where that point lies and what ensues after it, I wouldn’t care to predict, either in an Ehrlich-like direction OR a Simon-like one. Perhaps that’s the professional caution of a historian speaking.

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Paul Orwin 02.14.05 at 10:22 pm

I am not done with Diamond’s book yet (so don’t spoil it for me!), but Tim, it does not seem that he is saying what you said. I don’t think you are claiming that he is exactly, but this seems to be the point of much Diamond criticism. I have gotten through his Easter Island, Pitcairn, Henderson, Montana, and Anasazi chapters, and am halfway through the Maya. BTW, Prof. Diamond is one of those, IMHO, who believes that the plural of anecdote is data. Anyway, it seems to me that he goes to great lengths to make sure the reader understands that he is not claiming that what happened to Easter Island et al is our fate as well. He is studying these societies, how they arose and how they collapsed, and inferring from them what might be the greatest challenges to a current society. It seems clear to me at least that, as you say, post-1750 the rules have changed (I haven’t gotten to later examples yet). This book, thus far, seems to be very cautious in its imprecations and warnings. It clearly suggests that we should be concerned about resource overuse, and climate change (not just GW, but also shifts in local climate over time unrelated to human activities). He suggests, rightly IMHO, that a system as complex and interconnected as the modern world is not necessarily more or less vulnerable to these collapse-inducing changes, and we should be prepared for the possibility.

One thing in the book that I find interesting is the notion that the person in the society about to collapse is likely to see a society at its peak, with no possibility of collapse in the near term.

As far as the Ehrlich/Simon thing, Ehrlich was a fool to bet an economist on an issue he clearly didn’t understand. It seems to me that this says about their respective views on the environment…absolutely nothing.

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John Emerson 02.14.05 at 10:31 pm

I don’t think that either Ehrlich, Simon, or Diamond is an ideal representative of their points of view. I read Guns Germs and Steel awhile back, and it was great in Diamond’s area of expertise, great in its willingness to speculate and talk about ideas from many disciplines, but full of stuff I couldn’t justify.

It comes with the territory (he gambles a lot). But this means that you can’t refute Diamond and thereby refute his general point of view.

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Henry 02.14.05 at 10:47 pm

Timothy, my objection was not to Simon’s arguments that there could be substitutes for copper, but to his quite bald (and quite separate) argument that copper could be made from other elements. This isn’t a misinterpretation (read the comments by eudoxis and bob above for more detail) – it’s a claim that Simon made in all seriousness.

What I object to in Simon (and in his modern epigones like Easterbrook), is the persistent habit of pulling ad-hoc and entirely speculative technological solutions out of his hat in order to dismiss very serious concerns about resource limits. This isn’t the debate of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and Diamond isn’t a modern Ehrlich. He’s quite careful to stress the limits of historical analogies, and to avoid extrapolating ‘end of the world is nigh’ type messages from current trends. It’s a far more serious effort than the Club of Rome type predictions of the 1970’s, and should really be treated on its own merits.

The argument-from-complexity is a different one, but it perhaps cuts against techno-optimism far more than it does against it. Diamond addresses this in passing – examining how international interdependence cuts both ways – on the one hand, societies such as mediaeval Greenland, which are cut off from trade, are more vulnerable to resource crashes, but on the other hand, globalization creates an increase in interdependence – and thus in our exposure to other people’s problems. For a specifically complexity-theory based take on this set of issues, read Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon’s _The Ingenuity Gap_ – he provides a very interesting argument that the increasing complexity of social systems is outrunning the technical means that we have to have to address social problems.

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alkali 02.14.05 at 10:48 pm

Timothy Burke writes:

Criticality happens, but where that point lies and what ensues after it, I wouldn’t care to predict, either in an Ehrlich-like direction OR a Simon-like one. Perhaps that’s the professional caution of a historian speaking.

The thing is, though, that we all have a very compelling interest in determining when criticality happens, regardless of whether it is comfortable to predict it or not.

Deirdre McCloskey expressed a similar thought in the course of critiquing economists’ attachment to statistical significance:

It’s completely obvious, you will agree, that a “statistically insignificant” number can be very significant for some human purpose. If you really, truly want to know how the North American Free Trade Agreement affected the average worker in the United States, then it’s too bad if the data are noisy, but that’s not the point. You really, truly want to know it. You have to go with what God has provided.

(McCloskey, The Secret Sins Of Economics, at 53 (2002).)

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jet 02.14.05 at 10:50 pm

John Emerson,

“One of the reasons population growth has slowed is that people like Ehrlich convinced people that it should be slowed.” You have to have some sort of study to back that up, because it is farcical without support. Or do you really believe people in N. America and Europe stopped having kids over fears of overpopulation in Africa and Asia?

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John Emerson 02.14.05 at 10:57 pm

This does not mean that you CAN refute Diamond and thereby refute his overall point of view.

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Doctor Slack 02.14.05 at 10:58 pm

Yes, and even then it can result in a boondoggle of historic proportions. Rather than the Manhattan Project consider the Concorde.

Or “National Missile Defense,” for that matter. No arguments there. But, well… rather than the Concorde, consider the Airbus A380 — a project whose very success drew endless complaints about “unfair socialist government subsidies.” My beef is with the evocation of the scare words “centrally-planned” as though the very concept of government-funded R&D is somehow pseudo-Stalinist, disreputable and ridiculous in and of itself. I think, when held up against reality, such a view is completely wrong.

If you have serious objections to government boondoggles — and well you should — looking at the flaws in governance that actually allow these things to happen in one case as opposed to another is a way better investment of time than trying to dismiss publicly-funded R&D out of hand. I would dearly love to see libertarians start addressing themselves seriously to questions like “why did the Manhattan Project work, when the Concorde project didn’t”?

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Joe O 02.14.05 at 11:03 pm

mw,

The green revolution is a good example of the “unprofitable” research that governments and NGOs can do that the market isn’t necessarily going to do by itself.

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Doctor Slack 02.14.05 at 11:05 pm

Yes, and even then it can result in a boondoggle of historic proportions. Rather than the Manhattan Project consider the Concorde.

Or “National Missile Defense,” for that matter. No arguments there. But, well… rather than the Concorde, consider the Airbus A380 — a project whose very success drew endless complaints about “unfair socialist government subsidies.” My beef is with the evocation of the scare words “centrally-planned” as though the very concept of government-funded R&D is somehow pseudo-Stalinist, disreputable and ridiculous in and of itself. I think, when held up against reality, such a view is completely wrong.

If you have serious objections to government boondoggles — and well you should — looking at the flaws in governance that actually allow these things to happen in one case as opposed to another is a way better investment of time than trying to dismiss publicly-funded R&D out of hand. I would dearly love to see libertarians start addressing themselves seriously to questions like “why did the Manhattan Project work, when the Concorde project didn’t”?

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John Emerson 02.14.05 at 11:11 pm

Jet, I’m sorry that I called you an lame, egregious, creepo. that was cruel, even if true.

“Or do you really believe people in N. America and Europe stopped having kids over fears of overpopulation in Africa and Asia?”

Ehrlich didn’t localize his overpopulation fears and did not limit them to Asia and Africa. He actually argued (this I do remember) that overpopulation in wealthy nations was more harmful than Asian overpopulation, since wealthy people make more demands on the environment. So yes, I believe that the repeated loud warnings about overpopulation had an effect on fertility in the developed wirld. As I recall, Wattenberg, a big natalist, also believes that.

For one thing, high fertility has always been in part the result of the belief that having as many kids as possible is a wonderful thing, and Ehrlich’s type of argument was destructive to that arguments.

Guys, quit arguing. If someone says **”Gummint Ain’t No Damn Good Never Nohow”**, they’re not going to change their mind.

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Joe O 02.14.05 at 11:11 pm

mw,

The green revolution is a good example of the “unprofitable” research that governments and NGOs can do that the market isn’t necessarily going to do by itself.

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John Emerson 02.14.05 at 11:14 pm

Jet, I’m sorry that I called you an lame, egregious, creepo. that was cruel, even if true.

“Or do you really believe people in N. America and Europe stopped having kids over fears of overpopulation in Africa and Asia?”

Ehrlich didn’t localize his overpopulation fears and did not limit them to Asia and Africa. He actually argued (this I do remember) that overpopulation in wealthy nations was more harmful than Asian overpopulation, since wealthy people make more demands on the environment. So yes, I believe that the repeated loud warnings about overpopulation had an effect on fertility in the developed wirld. As I recall, Wattenberg, a big natalist, also believes that.

For one thing, high fertility has always been in part the result of the belief that having as many kids as possible is a wonderful thing, and Ehrlich’s type of argument was destructive to that arguments.

Guys, quit arguing. If someone says **”Gummint Ain’t No Damn Good Never Nohow”**, they’re not going to change their mind.

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roger 02.14.05 at 11:58 pm

Actually, I think the answer to Jet’s query: “One of the reasons population growth has slowed is that people like Ehrlich convinced people that it should be slowed.” “You have to have some sort of study to back that up, because it is farcical without support. Or do you really believe people in N. America and Europe stopped having kids over fears of overpopulation in Africa and Asia?” is a little more complicated than that. Rather, the slowing of the populations is in synch with the accessibility of contraceptives. Their continued accessibility is due, at least in part, to the arguments of those who, like Ehrlich, think humans should have control over their reproductive functions, and against those, like the Catholic Church, who said that human beings shouldn’t. So the effect of the argument, here, is indirect. Incidentally, this should show that technology qua technology, from an ecological point of view, is neutral.

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jet 02.15.05 at 12:17 am

So Johny boy,
Industrialized nations lowered their birth rates do to affluence and longevity. Less industrialized nations lowered their birth rates for the exact same reasons plus government programs to hand out contraceptives and educate women on what exactly causes pregnancy. I’m not sure how 1970’s hippy academics crying over the Human Horde to Come plays into this, but I’m sure you can enlighten me.

Did you ever go back and look at my link? It is actually a very cool link that could spread some light in your world. It is quite the mind numbing epiphany to realize that the energy problem (both environmental and cost) are an efficiency problem and not a supply or overuse problem. But it is also counter to the thread of making fun of technophiles, and I would hate to interrupt the mocking of optimist here.

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 12:18 am

In the long run most problems will eventually sort themselves out, but then again, in the long run we will all be … joining the Singularity anyway …

God, let’s hope the Eschaton gets here quickly.

(And Charles Stross has a sly dig at libertarians in “Iron Sunrise” by explaining precisely what happens when a bunch of them are plunked in a colony in an asteroid belt)

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Eric Farnsworth 02.15.05 at 12:57 am

I will repeat that I believe that Jared Diamond’s primary contribution to this topic is to remind us that we all need to eat. And I will challenge all the unlimited-resource folks among us to name the source(s) of their last meal. I fail to understand how the scarcity of copper driving up the price of cable TV for rich urbanites makes any damn difference. Solve this: we have finite agricultural land. We have a finite budget of sunlight for photosynthesis. We have a finite quantity of fresh water. We are currently susubstituting our finite reserves of fossil fuels for all of these resources.

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mw 02.15.05 at 1:03 am

But, well… rather than the Concorde, consider the Airbus A380 — a project whose very success drew endless complaints about “unfair socialist government subsidies.”

There’s no reason why in the long run, like the Concorde, the A380 can’t turn out to be both a major consumer of government subsidies AND a boondoggle.

I HOPE the 380 isn’t a big success–I’d much rather fly smaller planes point-to-point than have to go hub-to-hub on a flying Queen Mary, so the Boeing vision of smaller, highly-efficient planes is a lot more attractive to me as a customer (though now Airbus is apparently going back for more subsidies to build a 787 competitor, too).

Fortunately it seems that U.S. airports are not going to go in for the infrastructure expansions needed to handle the A380, so maybe we’ll dodge that ‘improvement’ in air travel.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 1:07 am

Jet baby — we’re in the blog world. You are alleging that decreased fertility is for once group of reasons, and I’ve alleged that there’s also an additional reason. And somehow you feel that you’ve won the argument that way. Explain, please. And what do hippies have to do with it?

No, Jet, I did not read your link. I’m responding to the rest of the thread. It might be an interesting link, but when you sail in calling people dorks and tards, they tend not to click your links.

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mw 02.15.05 at 1:08 am

The green revolution is a good example of the “unprofitable” research that governments and NGOs can do that the market isn’t necessarily going to do by itself.

Unprofitable?!? There are huge sums to be made with crops that are high-yield, pest-resistant, drought-tolerant, etc, etc.

I was under the impression that lefties held Monsanto primarily responsible for all that nasty ‘frankenfood’.

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sara 02.15.05 at 1:30 am

What, no alchemy jokes?

The set of Crooked Timber readers overlaps with the set of Stephenson fans, I’m sure.

I was going to suggest that Simon be nominated as Alchemist Royal to the court of King George Bush the Second.

But some of you seem to be taking him seriously.

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sara 02.15.05 at 1:32 am

What, no alchemy jokes?

The set of Crooked Timber readers overlaps with the set of Stephenson fans, I’m sure.

I was going to suggest that Simon be nominated as Alchemist Royal to the court of King George Bush the Second.

But some of you seem to be taking him seriously.

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jet 02.15.05 at 1:40 am

The tail end of these threads has to be worth at least a thesis. How do these specific issues of debate spin off from the topic of the thread and why do those topics spin off from that thread? Do those issues represent a core sub-issue of the debated issue? Perhaps it is the newcastle speaking, but if I ever go back to school, blogs and sociology will feature heavily. I mean come on, we have a post making fun of a technophile devolve into a debate over frankenfood and fertility forcings.

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Doctor Slack 02.15.05 at 1:40 am

I HOPE the 380 isn’t a big success. . .

Well, it’s already caused its detractors enough grief by insolently failing to shrivel on the vine. But barring some major disaster (like the sudden and absolute collapse of the market that spawned the Boeing 747) I rather doubt that prayers for a “boondoggle” judgment are going to be answered; IIRC it’s been picked up by ten major airlines and three freight carriers at last count, including FedEx and UPS.

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Doctor Slack 02.15.05 at 1:45 am

Oh, and BTW mw — which U.S. aiports aren’t making changes? The last news I saw on that front was this.

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Henry 02.15.05 at 1:57 am

bq. (And Charles Stross has a sly dig at libertarians in “Iron Sunrise” by explaining precisely what happens when a bunch of them are plunked in a colony in an asteroid belt)

Cosma Shalizi has suggested to me that there are some fruitful possibilities for collaboration between Alistair Reynolds and the ghost of Julian Simon (Slashers in Space!!!). Can’t remember exactly which of the ghastly societies described in _Iron Sunrise_ is the libertarian one – can you enlighten me? Also, one of these days will have to get back my copy of _Singularity Sky_ from my brother, so that I can do a post on Stross’s use of philosophical zombies (as opposed to the normal variety) as a plot device- a first for f/sf afik.

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 2:04 am

Solve this: we have finite agricultural land. We have a finite budget of sunlight for photosynthesis. We have a finite quantity of fresh water.

Ahem.

The Millennial Project: Colonising the Galaxy in 8 easy steps” by Marshall Savage.

Granted, there’s a debate on the science

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roger 02.15.05 at 2:09 am

To think that Boeing is not a highly subsidized aviation manufacturer is pretty mind-boggling. I suppose somebody better tell the Pentagon. Damn, guess that lease agreement that Darlene Druyan is going to jail for — you remember, the 10 bil overrun thing? — is just another example of your free enterprise system in motion.

Boy howdy. Those free enterprising military contractors, going into a laissez faire space where no man has ventured before.

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 2:20 am

Can’t remember exactly which of the ghastly societies described in Iron Sunrise is the libertarian one – can you enlighten me?

IIRC, Wednesday’s family winds up as refugees on a fairly straitlaced asteroid society whose name escapes me for the moment. There’s a bit of exposition in there about how the Eschaton loosely terraformed the asteroids, supplied them with a decades supplies – and then populated them with the loud-mouth pro-space contingent from Earth. Eventually the survivors had to shove the liberatarians out the airlock and build a conformist society just to get by.

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Cleve Blakemore 02.15.05 at 2:30 am

Jared Diamond writes for the midrange intellectuals who believe in the mythology of declines being the result of external forces. I have read all of Diamond’s books cover to cover starting with The Third Chimpanzee and I honestly think he is one of the biggest poseurs since the original kosher crypto commie himself, Stephen Jay Gould. The mediocre and the whole pseudo-intellectual entourage trailing dilettantes like Bill Mohr love this guy. Diamond isn’t worth two cents as a thinker and his recent book is a straight plagiarism of lesser known Marc Widdowson’s ideas, converted for the pro-wrestling school equivalent of academics who like their ideas sized down to bite sized portions they can actually chew with their tiny teeth.

It’s not external forces that cause the decline of civilizations – it is decline that makes civilizations susceptible to external forces.

Healthy societies are in a constant state of innovation – whereas dead ones like our own are like old men prone to catch every little cold that passes through. A little crop failure or a resource challenge could barely put a dent in our ancestor’s ability to continue to invent new technologies and adapt to changing circumstances, but the very same kinds of changes in our modern world are guaranteed to blow our entire society away like so much cheap rubbish during the next few years.

The truth about modern people is … they’re pussies. They’re not just pussies, they’re pretentious pussies. They’re already coming up with all kinds of convenient excuses why Zero Point oil is simply an insurmountable hurdle, like the pathetic sadsack apologists that they are. This whole oil decline fiasco was barely a speedbump in the path of progress for our forefathers when whale oil became unrealistic as an energy source. For us, it will certainly spell the end of our world.

The Romans … the Aztecs … the Sumerians … the Chinese … these people were always beaten first by what was going on inside … then the natural world took advantage of their vulnerability to put them out of their misery. Jared Diamond is wrong – civilizations choose to fail and be destroyed because they give up first and foremost, just as ours has given up. Don’t get the chicken before the egg.

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Doctor Slack 02.15.05 at 2:59 am

The truth about modern people is … they’re pussies. They’re not just pussies, they’re pretentious pussies. They’re already coming up with all kinds of convenient excuses why Zero Point oil is simply an insurmountable hurdle, like the pathetic sadsack apologists that they are.

Except all those environmentalist pussies, I guess, who keep saying we should invent new stuff to keep that from happening. But the trouble with them is that they’re too goddamned pussy to see that Collapse is just a rewrite of The Coming Dark Age except for all the ways it’s completely different. And they even missed the fact that Gould was a “crypto commie.” What a bunch of poseurs.

And you’re right — how dare Jared Diamond fail to argue that societies collapse because of internal factors, aside from writing a whole book on the topic? Rock on, cleve. Rock on.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 3:11 am

“original kosher crypto commie himself, Stephen Jay Gould”

“the Chinese … these people were always beaten first by what was going on inside”

That’s vivid, cleve. Whatever happened to the Chinese? Their demise was real a darn shame.

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frankis 02.15.05 at 3:25 am

Shouldn’t Julian Simon be given the benefit of the doubt when something he said sounds on a literal hearing completely silly? He was a bright guy and his comments on copper can easily be read as hyperbolic at worst, uttered in an excess of enthusiasm to reinforce his actual point which was (as has been well discussed above) about the endless renewability of resource economics (or something). It’s the way I first reacted to them. Scarcity drives price which drives exploration and subsitution and new technology, yada yada. And for the forseeable future there’ll be copper available to us, anyway.
If something becomes too scarce and expensive, perhaps because a market has done nothing to protect it from overexploitation, people typically discover that we can, after all, cope.

I liked Simon’s attitude that we may as well be optimistic, but perhaps he didn’t emphasize sufficiently that markets need to be well regulated because they don’t care about anything that’s really important. All they care about is buying ‘n selling, not whether the goods are oil, slaves, child workers or weapons.

So that’s a very interesting paper on the electric power business Jet. Its suggestions, which sound well worthy of immediate consideration to me, certainly do require government initiative and a high degree of government regulation to work – not deregulation but reregulation. It’s not as though Clean Air for instance is just going to be completely forgotten about, is it? Energy like other industries of its scale needs to be well regulated, not deregulated. That paper’s new world won’t happen by private enterprise alone MW.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 3:48 am

No.

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frankis 02.15.05 at 4:09 am

Ha :)
But do you want John to be helped with those issues you have with Simon?

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 4:13 am

No.

(Not a repeat post.)

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 4:32 am

It’s not external forces that cause the decline of civilizations – it is decline that makes civilizations susceptible to external forces.

Such as the Minoans?

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Jake McGuire 02.15.05 at 4:56 am

Solve this: we have finite agricultural land. We have a finite budget of sunlight for photosynthesis. We have a finite quantity of fresh water. We are currently susubstituting our finite reserves of fossil fuels for all of these resources.

Finiteness is not relevant here. There’s a finite amount of time before everything in the universe is iron at the same temperature. There’s a finite amount of time before the sun engulfs the earth. Numbers matter.

To address your specific points: the sun provides enough light to feed the expected maximum population of the earth at a US standard of living. We’re currently substituting energy for agricultural land and topsoil and fresh water because it’s cheaper than making more and/or using less, and we’re using fossil fuels because digging them out of the ground is cheaper than building solar cells and more politically palatable than building breeder reactors.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 5:12 am

“The sun provides enough light to feed the expected maximum population of the earth at a US standard of living”

There is no expected maximum population of earth. And harvesting the light is not a slamdunk. It may not be impossible (the way extracting all the valuable minerals from the sea is), but it’s not that easy. And no, you can’t just say that technology will eventually have an answer.

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Jake McGuire 02.15.05 at 7:07 am

The UN Population Division issues Low, Medium, and High estimates for population growth. The Low estimate has a peak at around 7.5 billion around 2040, Medium doesn’t peak on their chart but looks like probably around 10 billion in maybe 2100, and the High estimate seems to predict more or less linear growth. The current fracas shows the sensitivity of long-term projections to minor differences in assumptions, but unfortunately I don’t know enough to judge which of the UN assumptions are likely to be correct, but it’s worth noting that the predicted population in 2050 has gone down 4% in two years (from 9.3 billion to 8.9 billion). I think the preponderance of the evidence says that there is a predicted maximum population of the Earth, and that it’s probably going to be less than twice what we have now.

Anyone who does the math realizes that the amount of light available for photosynthesis for food production is not even remotely a constraint, for any likely number of people at any plausible standard of living (i.e. present-day US, where we all get fat eating meat). We don’t need to capture all the light, or even close to all of the light.

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Des von Bladet 02.15.05 at 10:15 am

Jet: You wish me to provide evidence to substantiate my claim that you often invite people to Google for evidence you neglect to provide? I say: go Google for it.

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Mychelline 02.15.05 at 1:31 pm

FWIW, I grew up in the 70s, and remember being aware, as a child, of issues with the world’s carrying capacity of humans (although of course I didn’t know the terminology back then). I grew up to be a conservation biologist and passsionate environmentalist, who decided not to contribute any more children to the planet precisely because I know USAmericans use more than our “share” of the earth’s resources, so any child of mine would have a disproportionate effect (over a child in Bangladesh, say). I know I’m not typical, but I can’t be the only person who made this choice either.

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Cheryl Rofer 02.15.05 at 3:15 pm

Although I’ve been accused by rightwingers of being left-leaning, I am also a scientist. Some ideas, like exhaustion of resources, have been too uncritically accepted by the left.

Substitution of resources may come about in unexpected ways, so that we won’t need more supernovas to make more copper. We are going to optical cable, the raw material for which is sand, in many applications.

Past examples are that gucky stuff that oozed from the ground in Pennsylvania for whale oil and coal, and automobiles for the horses that kept leaving stuff in the streets of New York.

Or the electrons on this screen for typewriter ribbon, paper, stamps, transport over land and sea…

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 3:59 pm

If the UN’s High estimate shows more or less linear growth, then there’s no estimated maximum. These are all obviously seat of the pants ballpark figures. If you’re just arguing against fatalistic inevitable-doomsday predictions, I can agree, but you seem to argue that we needn’t worry about population growth.

And it’s good that the middle estimate has been lowered. It means that some of the things people have been doing seem to be working, and that they should keep doing them — not that they should quit doing them because they’re unnecessary. That would be like the schizophrenic who quits taking their meds because they feel so good.

Cheryl Rofer, as I said, I think Ehrlich made a big mistake in putting so much weight on metals. Topsoil, energy, clean air, fresh water, fisheries, ozone depletion, greenhouse effect and climate change are the big things to watch.

The variable isn’t how much light reaches the earth, but how much can be captured and stored.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 4:02 pm

If the UN’s High estimate shows more or less linear growth, then there’s no estimated maximum. These are all obviously seat of the pants ballpark figures. If you’re just arguing against fatalistic inevitable-doomsday predictions, I can agree, but you seem to argue that we needn’t worry about population growth.

And it’s good that the middle estimate has been lowered. It means that some of the things people have been doing seem to be working, and that they should keep doing them — not that they should quit doing them because they’re unnecessary. That would be like the schizophrenic who quits taking their meds because they feel so good.

Cheryl Rofer, as I said, I think Ehrlich made a big mistake in putting so much weight on metals. Topsoil, energy, clean air, fresh water, fisheries, ozone depletion, greenhouse effect and climate change are the big things to watch.

The variable isn’t how much light reaches the earth, but how much can be captured and stored.

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roger 02.15.05 at 5:11 pm

Technophilia is, I think, an enemy to techno-realism. The various environmental crises faced by the affluent west are surely going to be solved, if they are solved, by some mix of social change and technological innovation.

Technophilia, however, is an unreasoning faith in technological progress — it gains its image of technology not from the stops and starts of actual history, but from science fiction. Nobody on this thread has mentioned the Telecosm fiasco, which is rather funny, since it is a case of technophilia run wild. The outlay for running fiber optical wire to the ends of the earth has amounted to over half a trillion dollars, or so Fortune has reported. The result of that activity has been, pretty much, the bankruptcy of every player involved with it. Where are Global Crossing, 360networks, Winstar, PSInet, Exodus? Ou sont les neiges d’antan? The fabulous Simon Ehrlich bet has nothing on the bets put, with heady, technophilic abandon, on wiring up America in the late nineties. Unfortunately, the sums lost here weren’t nominal.

Not that this will teach the technophiles any lesson whatsoever. Past non-performance, as they say, is no guide to the future’s dream performance.

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Jake McGuire 02.15.05 at 6:10 pm

Of course there’s an estimated maximum. The UN predicts that world fertility will fall below replacement levels by 2040; therefore the population is not expected to grow without bound. Furthermore, the “Medium” estimate for population in 2050 has been declining for the past 15 years.

I’m not arguing that no one needs to worry about population growth; I’m arguing that the current worldwide level of worry about population growth seems to be about right to maybe a little much. And since population growth rates seem pretty strongly inversely correlated to “development”, and since I’d like for there to be a lot less bone-crushingly poor people in the world, I’d rather spend my effort worrying about the latter.

If the amount of light per unit area changes dramatically, we’ve got much bigger issues than population growth to deal with. So to the extent that concern over “light” is real, it’s concern over agricultural land. Which we pretty clearly have plenty of; slash and burn farming is only taking place because it’s currently much cheaper than modern farming techniques.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 6:56 pm

Jake, if you were just saying that the most apocalyptic scenarios are paranoid, then I take back some of what I said. Perhaps I read too hurriedly or merged what you were saying with what another poster was saying.

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mw 02.15.05 at 7:20 pm

Oh, and BTW mw — which U.S. aiports aren’t making changes? The last news I saw on that front was this.

Ah, bummer. But on the bright side, we’re talking about just the largest airports in the largest cities (and none, fortunately, that I fly out of regularly).

Along with smaller jets, I really like smaller airports–you, know, 15-20 gates, park out front and walk in. John Wayne in Orange County is a nice example–so much better to fly to the LA area that way than through LAX.

I will say, though, that I have no objection at all if FedEx and UPS want to haul cargo with A380s.

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abb1 02.15.05 at 8:40 pm

Only an idiot can be optimistic about technology (or anything else for that matter). Technology will kill all of us very soon, one way or another.

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Jake McGuire 02.15.05 at 9:20 pm

John – I think my position is a little more severe than “the most apocalyptic scenarios are paranoid” – it’s probably more along the lines of “most of the apocalyptic scenarios are paranoid”, with a strong side helping of “intuition is no longer useful for coming to meaningful conclusions about this stuff – you have to do the math.”

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 9:22 pm

Only an idiot can be optimistic about technology (or anything else for that matter). Technology will kill all of us very soon, one way or another.

I would have been dead before my first birthday save for technology. I’m quite optimistic about it, even while acknowledging the problems.

And Cheryl, I’m a “leftist”. Try dealing with people rather than stereotypes sometime.

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Jake McGuire 02.15.05 at 9:33 pm

John – I think my position is a little more severe than “the most apocalyptic scenarios are paranoid” – it’s probably more along the lines of “most of the apocalyptic scenarios are paranoid”, with a strong side helping of “intuition is no longer useful for coming to meaningful conclusions about this stuff – you have to do the math.”

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abb1 02.15.05 at 9:47 pm

I would have been dead before my first birthday save for technology.

Well, OK, but how many dead people would be alive if not for technology? One little hydrogen bomb can kill more people in a second than penicillin can save in a year; Bhopal, Chernobyl; and just you wait till they have nukes in space monitored by computer programs written by someone in Bangalore for $7/hour.

Technology is amazing, and it’s controlled by troglodytes under a thin veneer of civilization. Yeah, the future is bright indeed.

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Jonathan Burns 02.15.05 at 10:01 pm

?The Millennial Project: Colonising the Galaxy in 8 easy steps? by Marshall Savage.

Granted, there’s a debate on the science.

Good heavens, I didn’t think my review would still be around after ten years. How pompous. How awkward.

Still I wouldn’t step back much from what I wrote then. What has changed in ten years is mainly that the prospect of inimical climate change is more definite and is informing international policy, e.g. at the recent G8 Summit. Last week The Age newspaper gave its cover to a warning that we may lose the Great Barrier Reef to coral bleaching, if we have another rise in sea temperature. Climate changes threaten both productivity and biodiversity. This is not your dad’s Limits to Growth debate, it’s a global situation we’re still coming to terms with.

Under the circumstances, Marshall Savage’s picture of giant fresh-water condensers on the continental shelves looks pretty rational. Provide for the fresh-water needs of cities, and the rainfall catchments and rivers gain a degree of freedom to serve agriculture and forestry – forests being our main defense against climate changes.

What I’d hate to see at this point is for “technophilia” to be made part of anybody’s partisan synthesis, especially for “technology” and “environment” to be proposed as moral opposites (yet again). The true technophile position is that we need lots and lots of ologists: ge-, bi-, climat-, ocean-, entom-, bacteri-, etc. We need enough of them that we can discern and implement solutions in timely manner, and have plenty left over for independent study. There’s been a lot said about the new global meritocracy, but there seems to be an accepted assumption that it’s all about growth and trade. Fair enough as far as it goes, but we need it to be about science too. Otherwise, when the decisions have to be made at the municipal and national levels, we’ll be relying on spokesmen for political and commercial interests.

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mw 02.15.05 at 10:02 pm

Well, OK, but how many dead people would be alive if not for technology?

A very small fraction of how many lived because of technology. If you include only the effects of advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, you’re so far ahead of the game, it’s not funny.

And hydrogen bombs, despite their potential, have never killed anybody. In fact, one could argue that nuclear weapons saved millions because they prevented the cold war from becoming real world war.

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abb1 02.15.05 at 10:33 pm

Yeah, but I think only maybe at most 15-20% of the world’s population benefit from technology in a real sense, for the rest it’s about as useful as Alaskan trash dumps for polar bears there. And the dangers are enormous – for everyone.

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 10:49 pm

Good heavens, I didn’t think my review would still be around after ten years. How pompous. How awkward.

Consider yourself lucky – I was actually looking for a piece on the dubious nature of seacrete.

Yeah, but I think only maybe at most 15-20% of the world’s population benefit from technology in a real sense,

Then you think wrong.

Look, go hit a library. Read up on how people actually lived in the Middle Ages – I read a book recently on the potato which dealt with conditions in Ireland, where most of my ancestors hail from. Anyone who’d prefer that to the modern day is crazy.

For God’s sakes, the indoor flush toilet (and associated sewage systems) is technology. So’s the internet. Publishing. Roads and cars. Dentistry.

Dentistry! Let’s see you talk about how useless technology is with an impacted wisdom tooth!

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jet 02.15.05 at 10:49 pm

John Emerson pontified: “Topsoil, energy, clean air, fresh water, fisheries, ozone depletion, greenhouse effect and climate change are the big things to watch.”

The anual drop in productivity from soil erosion is estimated at .3% a year. Certainly a problem, but not a looming catastrophy. Farming productivity has been imporving 1-2% a year, so looks like we’re okay for at least a couple hundred more years of technology to fix the problem.
Crosson 1996a
Crosson 1997d

Air quality in the industralized nations continues to improve. There is also a direct statistical link between GDP and air quality. Once the PPP of a country reaches about $10K, there is a dramatic increase in air quality, quickly increasing to the superb levels of industrialized nations.
EPA 1998c:9
Shafik 1994:764

I’ve already touched on the energy “crisis” in my link you (snarkily) said I never posted, but we’ll just chalk that one up to old age. Find your reading glasses old man, scroll back up using the “mouse”, and paste that link into the “browser”. Contact your great-grandkid if you require assistance.

I could go on to counter all your points and will if you want to mix it up with someone who isn’t blind nihilistic lemming. Copper or Ozone, Zinc or fisheries the world is getting to be a better place. I know you would prefer otherwise, so sucks to be you.

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.15.05 at 11:28 pm

Fisheries, Jet?

“Outside China, the world’s population has been increasing more quickly than the total food fish supply from production, resulting in a decreased global per capita fish supply from 14.6 kg in 1987 to 13.1 kg in 2000 (Figure 2).” […]

“Global forecasts of upper limits to capture fisheries, which have been made since the early 1970s, are being increasingly substantiated by the evidence of recent years. [Then it goes into the unreliability of stats]”

Okay, let’s see you prove “things are getting better” for that.

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John Emerson 02.15.05 at 11:39 pm

It wasn’t me who accused you of failing to post a link. Get reading glasses yourself, you odious twerp.

You also seem to be one of the people it sucks to be. Have a good day. I prefer blind nihilistic lemmings, thank you.

Most ocean fisheries are in trouble, and some are almost gone. Fish farming is not a source of additional food, since the fish are fed agricultural products which they transform into tasty luxury product. Please explain your point about fisheries.

The point about topsoil is that it’s not substitutable and almost all of what there is is in use. Besides erosion there’s salinization and water mining to worry about. An eight year old 2% annual productivity growth estimate hardly can be assured into the distant future, especially if it’s tied in with other resources such as fossil fuels.

Some of the improvement in the developed world’s air quality comes from exporting polluting industries to the third world.

I’ve already said twice that Ehrlich was wrong to rely on arguments about metal supplies.

I’m not up to date about ozone, so I’ll let that one slide. Certainly no one should take your word for anything.

Heard some tasty things about yo’ mama, little boy.

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jet 02.16.05 at 1:00 am

Phoenician in a time of Romans,
My intent wasn’t to argue the point that the Ocean was going to recover over night. Only that Ocean fish yields have stabalized while farm yields continue to increase. So this is my point that things are getting better, Ocean yields have stabalized and alternative methods of harvesting fish are being used. For instance, Chinese salmon farms now produce salmon cheaper than US Ocean harvesting.
Not good enough news to make you smile, but at least ocean populations are leveling off. Maybe not the best good news, but certainly the bad news is tapering off.

John Emerson,
“An eight year old 2% annual productivity” go to the USDA’s website and look up a 1998 publishing 2001A. The world average yields for wheat and rice are less than half of top producers in industrialized nations. This would imply the potential, with no gains in farming technology, the ability to almost double world yields. And while world yield growth has slowed from 2% to 1.5%, so has demand. World population growth has gone from 2% to about 1.3% and look like it will continue to decline. So the drop in yield growth is probably a response to a decline in the growth of demand, not a lack of ability.
Gale Johnson 1999

As for fossil fuels, see my energy link.

“Some of the improvement in the developed world’s air quality comes from exporting polluting industries to the third world.” That doesn’t change the fact that at about a $10K PPP countries decide they can afford to spend money on air regulation.

“I’m not up to date about ozone, so I’ll let that one slide.” Maybe this can bring you up to date. At current rates, the damage to the ozone will have healed entirely by 2050.
http://www.epa.gov/ozone/science/index.html

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Eric Farnsworth 02.16.05 at 1:09 am

Thanks for the stats John. All I was trying to say above is that for all the talk about growing food, very few people around here actually have any experience of it. I am suggesting that before you go pontificating about how easy it is to grow food for 7 billion people, you should try growing food for one person. I have done it, and I am telling you that if we run out of diesel fuel, many many Americans are going to be very hungry. Food is not produced with electricity. Food is not produced with fiber optic cable. It is produced with sunlight (which I don’t believe we are in danger of running out of), water, and except for fisheries, land. I’ve yet to hear anyone quote a statistic for how much unused ag land is laying around. And I believe the statistics I’ve heard about the lack of excess fresh water capacity. If any of you have actually seen how a modern American farm operates, it would be clear to you that this much vaunted food production is entirely dependent on vast petrochemical inputs, and the return is diminishing even now, even though oil is still cheap. So I’m not buying the rosy future scenario. I believe things are going to get tougher, and I have no idea whether it will be catostrophic or not, but our problems will not be solved by photo-voltiac cells or desalinization.

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John Emerson 02.16.05 at 1:15 am

Looks like you changed your story about fisheries. And fish farming, I repeat, does not increase the world food supply.

I’m not completely sure what we’re arguing about by now. I’m in favor of attempts to slow or stop population growth and am glad that they’re succeeding. Likewise for increasing productivity.

What I said was that I do hear people talking as if continuously increasing population with a continuously increasing average standard of living is possible and not harmful, and I say that it isn’t possible and would be. I haven’t endorsed Ehrlich’s or anyone else’s doomsday scenario.

I wouldn’t be as confident as you about the population and productivity extrapolations, especially because the existence of high-medium-low population estimates in a single study indicates enormous uncertainty.

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jet 02.16.05 at 1:32 am

John Emerson,
How did I change my story about fisheries? Fish yields still increase every year when you factor in farming. Ocean bio-diversity seems to have reached a leveling point. How is an end to the destruction of the Ocean and a replacement for fish yields not good news? And I don’t understand your point about fish farming not replacing ocean yields. I would premise that the drop in the growth of wheat and rice yields is a function of demand, not ability, and to prove this, I say look at world wheat and rice prices. So the continued growth in overall fish yields has not effected wheat or rice yields. Growth has gone done, yet price has remained steady, which means demand went down too.

I would agree that the ~600% population growth over the last 100 years was not sustainable. But I am pretty sure that 300% over the next 100 years is sustainable. Especially when you factor in alternative fuels which will certainly be competitive with fossil fuels in the next 30 years, and also the fact that current technology would allow for an almost 50% cut in price and usage of electricity/fuel for electricity across the world.

Tomorrow, as a species, we will be better off than yesterday. Thus is the prayer of the techno-phile ;)

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John Emerson 02.16.05 at 1:47 am

Fish farming does not add to the global food supply if it feeds food to the fish which otherwise could be eaten by humans. If fish are fed trash and offal they would add to the food supply, but not otherwise. In the same way, grain fed livestock do not add to the world food supply, by grass-fed livestock do, since grass cannot be eaten by humans. When edible food is fed to livestock, there’s actually a loss of food value from the point of view of calories, and sometimes of protein.

If the degradation of fisheries has been stopped, that’s a good thing. The last time I looked, that wasn’t happening, and a lot the news I hear around here (Oregon) has been bad.

Prices don’t tell you about food supply. Food supply is measured otherwise.

Also, in environmental or demographic time (centuries), as opposed to perceived human time (decades), low growth is still growth. It compounds.

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Phoenician in a time of Romans 02.16.05 at 2:01 am

And I believe the statistics I’ve heard about the lack of excess fresh water capacity.

The words you’re looking for, Eric, are “Oglala Aquifer

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Jake McGuire 02.16.05 at 2:22 am

But there’s not a shortage of food supply. There are people who are too poor to afford the food to survive, and there are governments who deliberately or accidentally create famines, but even without assuming complete adoption of current western farming techniques, the people who look at the numbers realize that we’ve got plenty of land to feed a lot more people than we currently have.

If the population is not expected to increase without bound (which it isn’t, fertility rates are declining everywhere), the question becomes one of at what standard can we support the expected maximum population.

Oh, it looks like the high and low estimates are essentially worthless, being created by adding and subtracting an entirely arbitrary 0.5 children per woman, instead of trying to create optimistic and pessimistic assumptions for the input variables and propagating them through the model.

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jet 02.16.05 at 2:28 am

“Prices don’t tell you about food supply. Food supply is measured otherwise.” But this does provide some light on why ag yield growth has gone down. If yield growth had gone down because of inability to meet demand, prices would have gone up. Since prices have remained steady, then yield growth went down because of a drop in demand. Which is all to make my point that fish, an important part of human diet, can continue to be supplied, at historic growth rates, with little or no effect on gross ag production.

And given the incredible disparity between industrialized nations and developing nations in yields per hectre, this trend can continue for a long time. I would only get worried when world average yields approach industrialized nations top yields, ie when India’s rice yields approach Japanese rice yields.

“in environmental or demographic time (centuries)” we can barely fanthom the state of the world in 100 years, so setting that as our horizon on things to worry about certianly seems fair.

As for water shortages, more efficient usage is the answer. Switching to more efficient forms of irrigation can cut ag water usage from 30-70%, while boosting production. Once again the problem is the resource was too cheap and overly used. Forcing improvements in efficiency BEFORE nature demands them is the answer. Also, irrigation quality water can be created from sea water for $.20 m3. And as time goes on and water becomes more scarce, who here would bet money that we don’t find even better ways to improve efficiency?

Water shortage is not a limit to growth, merely a challenge.

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Randolph Fritz 02.16.05 at 8:09 am

1. One limit on plantary land use is not simple geography, but the space required to maintain the wild ecosystems that keep the planet’s various large-scale chemical and climate balances going.

2. For a while we were substituting aluminum for copper in house wiring. We had to stop because the aluminum wiring turned out to be a fire hazard.

3. No amount of creativity is likely to make exponential population growth on the surface of the earth (or any planet) sustainable.

4. All high-tech fixes for overstressed planetary systems involve large amounts of high-quality energy, which we will not be able to get from fossil fuels indefinitely. I stress rather simpler, lower-tech solutions.

5. Very dense cities are much more efficient at supporting large numbers of people than spread-out built landscapes. The 21st century is the urban century.

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abb1 02.16.05 at 11:15 am

From Helen Caldicott’s website:

Of the 7,000 warheads in the U.S. arsenal, 2,500 are maintained on a 24-hour ready alert status, and can be launched within moments.

And, the commander of the Strategic Air Command has only about three minutes to decide if a nuclear attack warning is real or not. Then he has 10 minutes to find the president and give him a 30-second attack briefing, including options.

After that, the president has three minutes to decide whether or not to retaliate and if so, which targets will be hit. Once they were launched, U.S. missiles would reach their Russian targets in about 15 to 30 minutes.

The situation is relatively similar in Russia, with the exception that Moscow’s early warning system is rapidly aging.

According to the McNamara and Caldicott, the systems of both countries sound alarms daily, in response to wildfires, satellite launchings and solar reflections off clouds or oceans.

But as the Russian system continues to decay, it may be more difficult for Moscow to determine whether alerts are real or not.

That’s dangerous, argue experts, because it may mean in the future, [dead-drunk?] Russian commanders and leaders may have to rely more on human judgment—a concept much less reliable than computerized early warning systems that operate without emotion.

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CMN 02.16.05 at 11:21 pm

Interesting conversation. I’d like to try a tentative stab at responding to Dr. Slack’s question posed a ways back, as to why the Manhattan Project worked out better than the Concorde.

First of all, let’s note that both cases were equally successful as far as the solving of the immediate technical problem was concerned. They got a working A-bomb, and they got a working supersonic plane. I don’t think anyone really contends that government-funded research is incapable of solving problems in this sense. If you gather a bunch of good scientists and engineers, give them sufficient resources, and tell them to build an X, chances are that if X is possible, they will succeed in building it regardless of whether they are being funded by a government or a corporation.

When we judge an enterprise like this as a success or failure in a broader sense, however, we’re asking a different question. Not “did they get a working X,” but “did X prove to be worth the resources and opportunities spent to create it?” In the case of the Manhattan Project, the view that it was a “success” is premised on the belief that Hitler would sooner or later have built such a bomb, and that the cost of letting him beat us to it would be catastrophically high. I don’t claim to have any particular insight into this problem, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are historical arguments to be made that this premise was erroneous and that in fact the Manhattan Project did far more harm than good by jump starting an unnecessary arms race. In any event, the valuation of the Project as a “success” is based on the premise that we absolutely needed a bomb right then, and all that really mattered was that it worked and could be used against the enemy.

If the Concorde was a failure (and again I don’t claim to know anything about it other than what I’ve read above), it would seem to be because, while the technical problem was solvable, the solution wasn’t worth the resources it cost. Nobody needed a supersonic plane badly enough to justify what it cost to create and maintain. Private investors are certainly capable of making similarly bad investments, but there seems to be good reason to think that the constraints and incentives under which they operate will cause them to make fewer of them, and to make much less costly ones, than will political decision makers.

To tie this back to the original topic, the question is whether the need to conserve (or develop a substitute for) a particular resource is more of an A-bomb like question (we have to do it or else), or more of a Concorde like question (it seems like it would be nice to do it, but hard to know whether it’s worth the effort).

Whether or not we embrace Simon’s unnecessarily broad claim that we will never run out of resources, it seems to me that he and his fellow travellers have offered a compelling set of reasons for thinking that, for most of the resources we commonly worry about, the decisions as to what steps are worth taking in response to their depletion can safely and efficiently be left to market processes. I find it highly plausible to believe that, for example, once we get anywhere near the end of fossil fuel reserves (and my understanding is that we are nowhere near), it will become extremely profitable to invest in alternate energy sources, and unless we have strong reason to think such alternate sources are impossible in principle, we should trust that they will be developed when it becomes worth our while to do so.

Now I certainly don’t assert that there can be no exceptions to this general rule of thumb. But it seems to me that the burden of persuasion should be on the part of anyone who wishes to identify a particular resource and show why it presents us with a bona fide A-bomb situation.

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John Emerson 02.17.05 at 1:04 am

“I find it highly plausible to believe that, for example, once we get anywhere near the end of fossil fuel reserves (and my understanding is that we are nowhere near), it will become extremely profitable to invest in alternate energy sources, and unless we have strong reason to think such alternate sources are impossible in principle, we should trust that they will be developed when it becomes worth our while to do so.”

Why?

This just boggles me. A firm or a family which used up its resources as thoughtlessly as this would be regarded as suicidally irrational. “Something will come up” is not a plan.

I think that Simon’s cornucopianism (which is actually Lomborg’s term) is an unassailable cargo-cult ideology. This particular type of free-market Utopianism combines several principles in thoughtless, dogmatic form: faith in technology and the market, mistrust of government and collective activities, admiration for individual economic rationality and planning,contempt for collective rationality and planning, and refusal to think of the long term except in terms of optimism and faith.

The divergent time scales between environmental history (100 years is a short time) and human history (100 years is a long time) are not reasons to forget about the long term. They’re a problem to think about, or reasons why we’re probably going to blindly screw up. I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but it sounds like one of the things he’s talking about is blind lack of foresight, and a lot of people here seem to have made that into a positive principle or “feature”.

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jet 02.17.05 at 2:19 am

John Emerson “Why?…a family which used up its resources as thoughtlessly as this would be regarded as suicidally irrational.” It isn’t like there is no forecasting for oil reserves. We aren’t just going to wake up one day and be out of oil. We will know decades in advance that we are really nearing the end. Untapped reserves will continue to shrink, at which point investment in alternative fuels will start looking like juicy deals with huge payoffs. And oil can only stay above $70/barrel a short time before other fuels, like shale oil, would be viable.

For the same reason that the lack of whale oil is trivial and the very idea of whale oil as a problem is archaic, we’re probably safe in assuming 100 years from now a similar accounting of fossil fuel. You been keeping up on solar energy research? We aren’t far from commercial production being viable.

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John Emerson 02.17.05 at 3:05 am

I am not a prophet of inevitable doom, I just say that the various environmental and demographic warnings deserve serious attention and perhaps action. I also say that we should pay attention to the concrete physical sciences of demography, oceanography, climatology, and economic geography, and not allow them to be overruled by economics, which is a idealistic, non-physical science which simply assumes that market forces will bring something into existence as soon as it’s needed. (And much less, futurology, which is often simply voodoo.)

And likewise the related conviction that technology will certainly be able to solve any problem that arises — not a rational conviction, but wishful thinking.

I am in favor of good things happening, but I don’t think that they can just be assumed.

And last, the difference between ecological and human political time scales is at the root of what we’re talking about, and can’t just be waved off. A succession of 20-year solutions does not necessarily lead to a 200-year solution.

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John Emerson 02.17.05 at 3:18 am

I am not a prophet of inevitable doom, I just say that the various environmental and demographic warnings deserve serious attention and perhaps action. I also say that we should pay attention to the concrete physical sciences of demography, oceanography, climatology, and economic geography, and not allow them to be overruled by economics, which is a idealistic, non-physical science which simply assumes that market forces will bring something into existence as soon as it’s needed. (And much less, futurology, which is often simply voodoo.)

And likewise the related conviction that technology will certainly be able to solve any problem that arises — not a rational conviction, but wishful thinking.

I am in favor of good things happening, but I don’t think that they can just be assumed.

And last, the difference between ecological and human political time scales is at the root of what we’re talking about, and can’t just be waved off. A succession of 20-year solutions does not necessarily lead to a 200-year solution.

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CMN 02.17.05 at 7:32 am

John sez:

I think that Simon’s cornucopianism (which is actually Lomborg’s term) is an unassailable cargo-cult ideology. This particular type of free-market Utopianism combines several principles in thoughtless, dogmatic form: faith in technology and the market, mistrust of government and collective activities, admiration for individual economic rationality and planning,contempt for collective rationality and planning, and refusal to think of the long term except in terms of optimism and faith.

No doubt there are thoughtless dogmatists in every intellectual camp; I certainly tried to present my position with enough qualifiers to escape the latter charge. In any case, I think there’s a conceptual disjunct between your characterization and the better thinkers in the free market camp. It’s not about “collective” decisionmaking versus “individual” decisionmaking. The market is a collective process. The problem addressed by Hayek and company is precisely that the information needed to answer the hard questions about resource allocation is dispersed in such a way that only a truly collective process can make use of it. What you call “collective decisionmaking” is really giving some individual or individuals power to decide on behalf of a collective. Markets are about letting decisions actually be made collectively through the experience and decisions of all the knowledgeable individuals, no single one of whom knows what everyone else knows, and no single one of whom is capable, even in principle, of calculating how much of some resource should be made at the expense of all the others. A market is a continuous referendum on the issue of resource allocation, in which each voter is required literally to put his money where his mouth is. It does take the long term into account, because the value of any asset is equal to the sum of all the (discounted) future revenues the collective wisdom thinks it will yield. It has blind spots to the extent that the individual actors within it are shielded from negative consequences of their decisions, and rules that seek to recapture that information and make it play a role in the process can therefore be salutary. It’s not a question of “faith”; it’s a question of soberly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of different processes of collective decisionmaking for different types of problems, and deciding which is likely to do a better systematic job.

Who is putting more misplaced faith in the power of individuals to make wise decisions? The one who says that a few individuals who get elected and who are largely insulated from the direct consequences of their decisions should make them for the whole society, overriding the views of all who disagree? Or the one who says individuals should only have power to make decisions whose consequences they have to live with, and only within the constraints placed on them by the collective preferences of those around them?

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mw 02.17.05 at 1:15 pm

4. All high-tech fixes for overstressed planetary systems involve large amounts of high-quality energy, which we will not be able to get from fossil fuels indefinitely. I stress rather simpler, lower-tech solutions.

5. Very dense cities are much more efficient at supporting large numbers of people than spread-out built landscapes. The 21st century is the urban century.

Those may be revealing comments. The main text of the discussion has been whether or not technical advances are possible and probable that will support our current trajectory–continuously improving living standards for increasingly greater percentage of the world’s people.

Those arguing in the negative claim that it is just not going to work–but what they don’t say directly, but is suggested in the above 2 points is that they don’t really WANT it to work.

That is, for reasons quite apart from resource depletion, they would like to see us change our ways of living in the direction of ‘simpler, lower-tech lifestyles’ and ‘very dense cities’.

If there turned out to be a way to generate greater supplies of cheap energy that would allow the world to continue to evolve in the direction of U.S. levels of consumption (without environmental degradation) — they would not regard this as a good thing. In fact, there is a hint of satisfaction that environmental limits are forcing us to do what we should be doing anyway.

Is that a fair or unfair inference?

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CMN 02.17.05 at 5:48 pm

This just boggles me. A firm or a family which used up its resources as thoughtlessly as this would be regarded as suicidally irrational. “Something will come up” is not a plan.

The mistake you’re making here is assuming that because microeconomic decisions have to be made by deliberate rational choice, so do all macroeconomic decisions. A family has to decide how much milk to buy and what else to give up in order to do so. A dairy farmer has to decide how much milk to produce and what other production opportunities to forego in order to do so. But as long as those two groups of individuals are free to make choices and adjust to each other’s choices based on the information they get from market prices, nobody has to decide how much milk should be produced or consumed by the society as a whole. Every time someone has tried make that kind of decision, it’s been a disaster.

It’s precisely because families and firms are not, generally speaking, suicidally irrational, that my confidence in markets making the right allocation decisions is justified. As known reserves of fossil fuel diminish, its price will gradually go up, raising the prices of commodities that depend on it and increasing the relative desirability–hence profitability–of developing and using alternate energy sources. This will lead both to voluntary conservation and voluntary development of alternatives. Which, I suppose, are the same actions you think “thoughtful” actors should take. The same actions you want governments to impose now, to head off the future shortage. So the question isn’t really about what we should do in response to the finitude of a given resource, but when we should do it, and by what degrees. Remember that there are costs to doing it too early just as surely as there are to doing it too late. The very technology we need to create the viable alternative may well be retarded if we shackle the economy by taking premature steps. The fact that my tank will eventually run out of gas does not make it rational for me to stop at each filling station I pass. And if I turn off the engine in order to avoid the possibility of ever reaching empty, I will never reach the next filling station.

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mw 02.17.05 at 6:42 pm

Remember that there are costs to doing it too early just as surely as there are to doing it too late. The very technology we need to create the viable alternative may well be retarded if we shackle the economy by taking premature steps.

Yes, and it’s not just a question of ‘early’ vs ‘late’ but doing the right things vs doing the wrong things. There are a whole lot possible ways to attack the problems we face, but it’s very hard to anticipate which will prove to be wise and which dead ends. Should we be investing billions in hybrid cars and mass-transit? Or will telecommunications advances (combined with cultural changes) render commuting into an anachronism? In 10 or 20 years will people look at pictures of the vast masses of commuters on jammed freeways as strange relics of the past?

The market can devote resources to a vast number of possibilities–adjusting the investment constantly according to which show the most promise. Government can’t (or at least doesn’t) do that–it focuses on one (or a few possibilities), becomes invested in those (and generates a powerful constituency for further investments regardless of promise), and its investments are often politically influenced.

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Jonathan Burns 02.18.05 at 1:23 am

mw:

That is, for reasons quite apart from resource depletion, they would like to see us change our ways of living in the direction of ‘simpler, lower-tech lifestyles’ and ‘very dense cities’.

If there turned out to be a way to generate greater supplies of cheap energy that would allow the world to continue to evolve in the direction of U.S. levels of consumption (without environmental degradation) ? they would not regard this as a good thing. In fact, there is a hint of satisfaction that environmental limits are forcing us to do what we should be doing anyway.

Is that a fair or unfair inference?

Fair question, and I’m on target. But I think the realistic answer is too equivocal to support a rhetorical advantage for laissez-faire.

I would regard it as a good thing – a very good thing, since it would offer modern prosperity to the whole human race. It is what I hope for, over the next century, from space solar power.

But SSP is a trillion-dollar, century-long project, and the alternatives – very large-scale fission, or fusion, or terrestrial photovoltaics – are comparable in cost. In fact, every energy option, deployed on a scale to replace oil, entails massive changes in employment and land and water use – indeed entails a new chapter in the Industrial Revolution.

I have a lot of optimism for the rising generation, but the happiest I can imagine is that world development is going to slip backward, because developing economies will not be able to afford new energy options. Too many are already sunk in debt for the capital they’ve already installed.

If someone could propose to me how the developing world is to muster such an economic advantage, over the oil decline period, that they can bid more-or-less as equals in the market for new energy supplies, then it would change my life. But sadly, I don’t see that happening. I see the debt, I see the concentration of effort into primary production, and I see the best of their people joining in the world meritocracy while their compatriots muddle through on the margins.

So I desperately want the low-fuel, low-tech, labour-intensive, dense cities to work. Insofar as they do, they work for everyone, not just the currently successful.

If fuel prices rise to the point that a region cannot even afford to re-gear for low-fuel, that is when development slips backward, maybe even catastrophically. Rust belts and ghost towns. Failed economies, failed savings, failed tax bases, failed human talent pools.

That’s my Spectre, and I welcome any thought that can help me address it. If it comes out of a laissez-faire perspective, that’s fine. But I cannot see that laissez-faire economics points elsewhere than unequal development. The alternative I see as possible requires planning for low-fuel.

Now there is another side to all this: an argument that regions, maybe even villages, which are self-sufficient in energy constitute an economic basis with more opportunities than those dependent on external suppliers. That is what much of the ’70s Whole Earth Catalog alternative energy exploration was about. “We don’t have to be dependent on the System; we learn more and become stronger and escape the dependency culture by working out how to do this stuff with windmills and bicycles.” We can debate that. But I assure you, and really quite urgently want to convince you, that the prior argument is genuine, sufficient in itself, and not a cloak for the latter.

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Cleve Blakemore 02.21.05 at 4:42 pm

John Emerson :

In analyzing your stance as regards possible exhaustion of metals versus rational limits on growth, I find the most exhausting limits may be imposed by your own incredibly highstrung gayness.

In fact, if we could somehow harness your barely concealed effeminate repressed gayness, I feel that both solar and wind power might be eclipsed by the sheer potential energy output of your shrill, effete swayback ofay down-low brother nancy-boy gibberish generation. It’s that kind of high octane cherry syrup sweetness that has to be considered before we talk about nuclear rods, if at all, in vaguely symbolic unconscious freudian slips.

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