Optimism versus Ignorance

When it comes to scientific topics like peak oil and climate change, are people’s opinions based on optimism, or ignorance?  Does optimism prevent people from even obtaining the information that would make them less optimistic?  Consider what it took for me to become aware of peak oil, peak resources, and climate change:

1)      Being curious about many topics

2)      Majoring in biology with a chemistry/physics minor

3)      Becoming involved in alternate technology groups when I was in college during the first energy crisis

4)      Continuing to read about science after I graduated

5)      Understanding the scientific method – how we know what we know –how else can you tell truth from falsehood?

6)      Critical thinking skills (especially via Skeptic and other magazines devoted to this
subject)

7)      A hell of a lot of bedrock knowledge to evaluate new information.

8)      Getting bedrock knowledge, “a big picture view”, from (systems) ecology, evolution,
cognitive science, cosmology, biology, agriculture, engineering, soil science, medicine and health, economics (history of & natural capital), etc.

9)      Willing to continue despite having cherished notions crushed – it’s like finding Santa
doesn’t exist over and over again.

10)  Willing to continue despite the very negative feedback from friends and family who thought I was nuts and unrealistic (pessimistic) see “Telling Others

11)  Having time to read: no children, reading a lot while commuting (including while walking back and forth to work 10 miles a day).

12)  Reading BOOKS, which connect the dots (of articles).  People who are too busy to get new information beyond TV sound bites will never understand anything important.

13)  It takes a lot of reading to really understand a topic.  For example, to understand how soil affects plant growth, I spent 3 years reading soil science textbooks, peer-reviewed articles, and college-level courses before I knew enough to write just the soil sections within “Peak Soil

14)  Knowing where and how to find the very small amount of information that contradicts all the positive press releases and articles

15)  Reading Grandpa’s autobiography “Memories of an Unrepentant Field Geologist”, where I discovered he was a good friend of someone called M. King Hubbert who predicted there’d be a peak in oil production, and doing an internet search on Hubbert.

I still wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t found peak oil internet forums from my “Hubbert” search in #15 above, or forums like energyresources and runningonempty), where I found out about books like Youngquist’s “Geodestinies”, Gever’s “Beyond Oil”, Hayden’s “Solar Fraud”, and Trainer’s “Renewable energy cannot sustain a consumer society”.  The San Francisco Bay Area reads more books per capita than anywhere else in the United States, yet these books never appeared in any bookstore in the Bay Area, let alone books by Charles Hall, David Pimentel, and others too numerous to mention (see my book list ).  Some of these books are at the University of California, Berkeley library, the 3rd largest university library system in the United States, and I’m often the only person to have read them!  If you live near a university, you can probably get access to the books for a fee — I pay $100 a year.

It’s still very hard to find information that contradicts positive articles because negative scientific results are often not published, overly optimistic articles are published by researchers to get more grant money and companies to get more investors.  When it comes to books and articles, many publishers explicitly state in their guidelines they won’t publish pessimistic books (they’re hard to sell, the publisher will lose money, who can blame them).

I continue to find new information in internet forms, but also by reading Science, Nature, and other peer-reviewed journals, as well as the books recommended.  Science, online only, has a great list of books received.

Then there’s the “bop-a-mole” problem.  Pimentel, Patzek, Hall, many others, and I (Peak Soil) have explained why plant-based fuel can never replace oil for dozens of reasons — from topsoil depletion and compression, EROEI, composting or combustion of the biomaterial in storage, weather preventing harvest, eutrophication of waterways from fertilizers to grow crops, not enough water to grow plants, energy to collect and deliver biomass to biorefinery, energy to deliver biofuel to customer, and hunger (in my paper I have a caption of “Do you want to eat, drink, or drive?”).

It seemed like there was actually some effect – scientific researchers vowed to  stay away from corn ethanol and pursue cellulosic ethanol or butanol from non-food crops.  Though that still doesn’t get around all the other problems listed above.  But never mind, science researchers got hundreds of millions in funding from BP and other sources, and I think that quietly they’re more looking at how to use plants to replace chemicals and the other 500,000 products made with oil as a component than for fuel.

Just because the corn mole was bopped down doesn’t keep the other moles from popping up.  Especially annoying is the algal biofuel mole (see 38 reasons Algae will never replace oil ).

Or consider all the positive information that constantly is published about solar, wind, and other energy that would generate electric power.  Before you can begin to understand why these articles are too optimistic, you have to keep in mind while reading them that

1)      our problem is oil, which accounts for 99% of transportation

2)      that the electric grid is falling apart and needs at least $2 trillion in expansion to balance the alternative energy load

3)      that the grid can only handle so much intermittent power which has to be balanced by more and more natural gas peaker plants (and natural gas is finite despite all the fracking)

4)      that some of the rare metals required are depleting faster than fossil fuels

5)      that at best these energy resources can augment fossil fuels, but once oil is gone, they’ll vanish too, because these sources aren’t capable of reproducing themselves: They don’t generate enough energy to mine the rock, crush the ore, fabricate the metal, maintain themselves (especially windmills which start to break down more and more often after about 2 years), build the roads and vehicles to transport the device to remote locations, feed / house / educate / fuel the cars of the employees involved from birth to death involved in this entire process, etc.

I think that it’s okay people don’t understand the situation we’re in because there’s nothing that can be done, we’ve so way, way, way overshot carrying capacity locally, regionally, and globally. If people did realize the real situation, the financial system would have already collapsed when Science announced peak oil happened sometime in 2005 and the IEA said peak happened in 2006. That means our economy can’t grow endlessly and the entire credit/debts-payed-off system no longer works. As long as people think other kinds of energy will seamlessly replace oil and don’t know how much their lives depend on oil, civilization continues, and when it crashes, will crash that much harder and faster, perhaps our only hope of preventing our extinction (and millions of other species).

I think that it’s okay people don’t understand the situation we’re in because there’s nothing that can be done, we’ve so way, way, way overshot carrying capacity locally, regionally, and globally.  If people did realize the real situation, the financial system would have already collapsed when Science announced peak oil happened sometime in 2005 and the International Energy Agency  said sometime in 2006.  That means our economy can’t grow endlessly and the entire credit/debts-payed-off system no longer works.  As long as people think other kinds of energy will seamlessly replace oil and don’t know how much their lives depend on oil, civilization continues, and when it crashes, will crash that much harder and faster, perhaps our only hope of preventing our extinction (and millions of other species).

Overoptimism has led to an enormous waste of resources, as Bent Flyvbjerg points out in “Mega delusional: The curse of the megaproject“.  Global spending on megaprojects is about $6 to 9 trillion a year, many if not most of which go way beyond optimistic cost forecasts and deliver far less benefits as well. What drives this enthusiasm for repeated failures?

  • The rapture engineers and technologists get from building large and innovative projects that push the limits
  • Politicians love constructing monuments to themselves and their causes and these grand schemes are media magnets that give politicians more exposure.
  • Businesses make money, and lots of jobs are created for unions, contractors, engineers, architects, consultants, construction and transportation workers, bankers, investors, landowners, lawyers and developers
  • If it doesn’t work out, the taxpayer pays.
  • The public is tricked into approval by all the job creation, new services, and perhaps environmental benefits.  But this only happens if the project is done right.  Conventional megaprojects have terrible records in both cost and benefit.
  • Psychological factors keep the illusions flowing, such as uniqueness bias in terms of technology and design where managers to see their projects as firsts, so they don’t bother to learn from other projects.
  • Also there can be a lock-in at an early stage.   Former California State Assembly member Willie Brown described the cost overruns on the San Francisco Transbay Terminal as:  “The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
  • A false sense of control is common and ignorance of potential “black swans” can bring on failure.
  • Last but far not least is the optimism bias which plagues cost estimates.
  • Reverse evolution: The projects that get chosen look the best on paper by underestimating costs and overestimating benefits.

The consequences are huge: they can damage a national economy.

The truly optimistic might even say that one day the word megaproject will no longer be synonymous with unexpected costs and questionable benefits.

Alice Friedemann in Oakland, CA

 

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3 Responses to Optimism versus Ignorance

  1. Bruce Stephenson says:

    Great article, Alice. Everything you say is very familiar, and resonates perfectly with my experience. I completely agree. Thank you for saying it!

  2. Sunweb says:

    Was wondering how you were doing. Well written and clear.
    John Weber

  3. mark williams says:

    Hi Alice
    I appreciate your efforts to put this all together. thank you.
    mark