Pessimism and Optimism / Ignorance

When it comes to scientific topics like peak oil and climate change, are people’s opinions based on optimism, pessimism, or ignorance?

I think labeling views as pessimistic or optimistic is a logical fallacy, especially if the viewpoint is backed up with strong peer-reviewed evidence.  Which I strive for on this website.

As far as peak oil, the limits to growth, energy returned on energy invested (EROEI, EROI) and other topics o, I find I am usually dismissed by people who label themselves as optimists which means I am a pessimist, regardless of my evidence.

An optimist voicing an opinion not backed up with good evidence is not an optimist, they’re ignorant.  And likely to remain that way — an optimist doesn’t want to see “pessimistic” ideas, and certainly doesn’t seek them out.

Consider what it took for me to become aware of peak oil, peak everything really, climate change, carrying capacity / overpopulation, soil erosion, and so on that I discuss at this site:

  • In my early 20s I decided that my purpose in life was to get a big picture view of how the world actually worked across every field possible, from anthropology to zoology. I  suspect that this is the goal of only a very small percent of people.
  • I wanted the most trustworthy books, but how could I know which ones were the most “truthful”?
  • So I pursued critical thinking skills with skeptical magazines and classes
  • I read books on the philosophy of science. Even though I’d majored in biology with a chemistry/physics minor I hadn’t fully grasped that science isn’t just “facts”, it’s a process, a method of understanding the world, the most successful one ever invented.  Peer-reviewed evidence is best, and some evidence is better than others. For example, a health study using a few mice is not nearly as good evidence from studying 20,000 nurses over a decade.  Yet I still make mistakes, so I value it when readers catch my errors and let me know.
  • My career was in systems analysis, which enhanced my analytical skills further
  • Loving books –over 99% of what I’ve read the past 44 years is non-fiction.  This gave me a “big picture view” and a BS-meter to evaluate new information with (see my energyskeptic booklist)
  • Willing to continue research despite having cherished notions crushed – it’s like finding Santa doesn’t exist over and over again when you read about the state of the world.  And I continued despite the very negative feedback from friends and family who thought I was nuts and pessimistic about Hubbert’s Peak (later known as Peak Oil) see “Telling Others
  • Having the time to read. I don’t have any children, and during most of the 30 years of my professional career, walked a total of 10 miles a day back and forth from work, reading a book. This enabled me to read thousands of books.
  • Delving deeply into important topics. I spent 3 years reading soil science textbooks and journals before I knew enough to write “Peak Soil
  • Nearly all articles about windmills, solar, and so on in press releases and media are positive, because there’s money to be made by getting investors or research grants, and readers prefer to read positive stories. It is very difficult to find the articles that present the obstacles and roadblocks to a technology. Negative results are often not published. People are highly unlikely to stumble on them unless they are looking for them.  And pessimistic books and articles don’t sell, so who can blame publishers for not publishing them?
  • Reading Grandpa’s autobiography “Memories of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” in 2000, where I discovered he a friend of M. King Hubbert who predicted there’d be a peak in world oil production around 2000 (and hey, it was 2000!), which led to an internet search and eventually this website.  I was no stranger to the energy crisis, I’d been involved in an alt tech group during the 1973 energy crisis

I should have found out about Peak Oil a long time before 2000 — after all, I haunted the non-fiction section of the best bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area.  But they never carried Gever’s 1991 “Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades” or Youngquist’s 1997 “Geodestinies” (and many others).  My research would have never gotten as far as it has if I hadn’t learned about important books on forums like energyresources and runningonempty.

I continue to find new information in energy resource internet forums, but also by reading the latest national laboratory and National Academies Press publications, the journals Science, Nature, Scientific American, NewScientist, ScienceDaily.com, and “books received” in the journal Science (only the online version has this list) .

Consider all the positive information that constantly is published about solar, wind, and other energy that would generate electric power.  Why would anyone even doubt them?  There’s no motivation to look any further, delve any deeper.  But the next time you read anything about nuclear or other electricity generating contraptions consider this: Electricity solves nothing.  Diesel fuel is almost 100% used in the transportation that matters — heavy-duty trucks, such as the tractors that grow and harvest food, ships carrying 90% of cargo world-wide, and locomotives. Even if you still think the scientists will come up with something, time is running out.  It would take decades to replace a billion combustion engines and the distribution system that feeds them.  And in the end, electricity will only solve the problem if we can make electric trucks.  But that is far from happening for reasons explained in “Who Killed the Electric Car“, and if eventually, an electric grid that is 80 to 100% renewable is possible.

Over optimism can lead to an enormous waste of resources, as Bent Flyvbjerg points out in “Mega delusional: The curse of the megaproject“.  The consequences are huge: they can damage a national economy.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.

I can never avoid being called a pessimist. Conversation is a soundbite. You’ve got 10 seconds to present a tiny piece of evidence, when an understanding of the energy crisis requires practically a college education, it is so complex, and a scientific literacy which perhaps 5% of Americans have.

And in the end, who wants to know that the end of oil is will end of our way of life, with its hundreds of energy slaves serving our every whim?

In the end, I’ve pursued these grim topics because energy resources and the decline and fall of civilization connect the dots between almost every book I’ve read across all topics.  The systems analyst in me is fascinated by the connections and the interdependencies.  I’ve seen lists of “250 reasons why the Roman Empire failed”.  Our far more complex society will collapse for far more reasons, a “death by a thousand cuts” — cuts that are already visible in our failing infrastructure, gulf dead zones, 6th extinction, climate change, pollution, and oil wars that will only end when the last military airplane falls from the sky when its gas tank is empty.

Alice Friedemann in Oakland, CA

 

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3 Responses to Pessimism and Optimism / 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