Every year, the National Post‘s columnists host “Junk Science Week,” a series of posts which is devoted to pawning off as wise commentary the finest in junk science, usually a series of ill-informed denials of climate change. (The Post says they’re debunking junk science, but somehow the positions they defend usually wind up being junk themselves.) This year, it features an attack on The Limits to Growth, the 1970s-era study which kick-started the sustainable development movement. Apparently climate change isn’t a big enough target anymore; the very idea that we’re running out of resources and will soon reach peak energy is bogus.
Hilariously, the attack by Peter Foster gives a starring role as expert witness to the deceased clown Julian Simon. In case you’re not up to speed on your senior American economic advisors, Simon is the author of the following hilarious explanation as to why we don’t need to worry about running out of resources:
Of course the sun may eventually run down. But even if our sun were not as vast as it is, there may well be other suns elsewhere.
Yeah. It’s hard to even know where to begin with that. Yes, there certainly are other suns elsewhere. Yes, our sun certainly will “eventually run down.” And no, the fact that there are “other suns” isn’t going to be of much use to us at that point.
Let’s clear the obvious out of the way first: as usual, the most pessimistic projections about the point at which we’ll reach peak energy have been wrong. In this case, it’s because of the rise of shale gas. This pushes back the point of peak oil, and hence peak energy, by a few years. It pushes it back far enough that in a sense the debate really is purely academic right now: by the time oil supplies are effectively exhausted, exploiting them will have done irreparably severe damage to the climate and will likely have resulted in the destruction of advanced technological civilization.
However, since we’re talking about peak energy, can we please stop talking as though our energy supply is actually infinite? As usual, the Post’s defence relies on the claim that human ingenuity is basically infinite, and will keep coming up with replacements as current energy supplies are exhausted. And this claim isn’t just advanced to the point that human civilizations will always have some energy available. No, what the Post is arguing is that human ingenuity means we will always be able to invent sufficient new energy supplies that energy consumption can keep growing infinitely.
The last time one of our highly paid pundit-morons embraced this idiotic notion, I spun out our long-term energy consumption growth rate — about 2.9%, so that energy consumption increases by 16 times every century — to show that if the “infinite growth” school is correct, over the next century we will need to expand our oil production by 468 billion barrels of oil per year and build over 5000 new nuclear reactors. The shale gas “revolution” obviously isn’t going to put a dent in long-term energy growth. And in less than 1000 years, we will need to begin building a Dyson sphere — a dome of solar panels hundreds of million kilometres in diameter, to capture the entire energy output of the Sun.
Apparently that wasn’t enough to sway the punditry, who think we will be more than creative enough over the next thousand years to invent energy sources equivalent to 2.5 trillion times current consumption. That’s 2.5 trillion times as much as what we’re using now, each and every day.
Now, at this point, some people will start getting a little bit nervous about the numbers and say of course we won’t really be using that much. But that’s exactly my point: we are going to reach peak energy, and we are going to do it fairly soon. Exactly why we will reach peak energy isn’t known yet. There are several possibilities, chief among them natural disasters, famine, pandemic disease, resource exhaustion, climate change, agricultural collapse, water supply exhaustion, nuclear war, strict Chinese-style population control, and strict government-managed conservation of resources. If we don’t pick one of the last three options, then sooner or later nature will choose one of the first seven. The math is simple, undeniable, and inevitable. Pick your poison.
But some people may still be idiotically clinging to Simon’s idea that human ingenuity will be able to sustain human growth forever. Fine. Assuming continued growth, in about 1200 years or so we will reach Simon’s magic point — the point where our Sun “runs down” and we begin to look for “other suns elsewhere.” And that’s the point where the cosmos becomes our infinitely energetic backyard… right?
Not exactly. Even setting aside the obvious problems of (a) travelling faster than light, a physical impossibility and (b) hauling back distant stars at faster than light to plug them into our power grid, we’re still left with the problem of continuing growth. Which, if the infinite growth people are right, could be around 2.9% per year, or 16 times over the course of a century. So in 1200 years, we’ll need to go out and find an extra Sun to double our energy consumption. But energy consumption is still growing! So in the century after that, we’ll need to go back out into the galaxy and pick up 16 new suns.
Still not done, though, because human ingenuity knows no bounds! In 1400 years, we’ll have gone out and retrieved 256 suns. The century after that, we’ll pick up 4000 suns. In just 2000 years from the present, we will have Dyson spheres operating around 4 million stars. In 2400 years, we’ll be using the solar output of the entire galaxy — about 400 billion stars. Just to be clear, the infinite growth school school is saying that in roughly the same timespan as the history of the Christian church, we’re going to invent a spaceship capable of travelling at least several hundred times the speed of light, and we’re going to use that spaceship to harness the power of 57 suns for every person currently alive.
And that’s not the end, either, because human ingenuity is at work! Of course, at that point we’ll need to find and harness the power of sixteen extra galaxies over the following century. In just 3000 years — the history of Judaism, say — we’ll be harnessing the power of 17 million galaxies. To do that, we’ll need a spaceship travelling millions of times faster than the speed of light, because even the closest galaxies are much farther away than the average economist is capable of fathoming.
In the millennium following that, bringing us out to the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Babylon, we’ll have grown to the point that we’re using all of the energy of the entire observable universe.
Now, at this point, the few infinite growth proponents who haven’t knuckled down and agreed that peak energy isn’t a myth after all will say that it’s not worth thinking about things on such a long timespan. This is, quite frankly, asinine tripe from people who don’t deserve a bachelor’s degree, let alone a PhD. The human species is at least 100,000 years old. Thinking about this from the perspective of humanity as a whole rather than ourselves as individuals, saying that 4000 years in the future is much too far to bother thinking about is exactly akin to saying that there’s no need to plan or save for more than a couple of years into your personal future because who knows what might happen six months down the road.
Now, there are a few people who live that way. More than a few, actually. But I can’t think of a single economist or financial planner who would seriously argue that it’s foolish to plan for more than a year at a time. So why are there so many economists who insist that it would be irresponsible to try to plan for the future of our species over an equivalent timespan?Tweet