Pessimism and Optimism versus Ignorance


Below are my thoughts about whether views based on scientific evidence can be labeled optimistic or pessimistic.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

When it comes to scientific topics like peak oil and climate change, most people’s opinions are based on optimism, pessimism, or ignorance. Only a small minority of people are scientifically literate in America with half the population not believing in evolution, a third not believing in climate change, and only a few percent fully understanding how much current civilization is dependent on fossil fuels, especially oil, and don’t understand why oil can’t be replaced with something else (which is covered at energyskeptic, especially in menu item “Energy” and in my book “When Trucks Stop running“.)

Scientifically literate means understanding the scientific method, how we know what we know, and what good evidence is, though even scientists may not know much outside of their own field since they are so busy with research, grad students, getting grants, and publishing.

If a point of view is based on solid scientific evidence, it shouldn’t be labeled as pessimistic or optimistic. Surely that is a logical fallacy of some kind.  For instance, this article blames lobbyists for attacks on Elon Musk and Tesla (These Are the Lobbyists Behind the Site Attacking Elon Musk and Tesla).  Both the lobbyists and the author of this article are using political arguments.  Not scientific arguments, perhaps because after the 2008 economic downturn, science reporters were among the first to be let go.  The gossipy he said she said approach of even mainstream media on scientific topics frustrates me.  I have issues with electric cars but try to use scientific evidence by explaining why it is so hard to develop a battery that is cheap, long-lasting, durable, and light-weight enough due to principles of science here, why heavy duty trucks can’t run on batteries here, and why there may not be enough lithium here.

I have done a great deal of research on nutrition, especially grain nutrition, so I was startled to see a book called “Grain Brain” that claims “carbs are destroying your brain. And not just unhealthy carbs, but even healthy ones like WHOLE GRAINS can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, and much more”.  And beyond that, the reference citations looked very scientific, but as you can see in my book review of Grain Brain, the papers cited did NOT back up what he was saying, especially the few peer-reviewed papers (most references were junk science), and almost no recent evidence was offered to support his claims.

As far as peak oil, the limits to growth, energy returned on energy invested (EROEI, EROI) and other controversial or taboo topics such as overpopulation and carrying capacity, I find I am usually dismissed by people who label themselves as optimists because they think I am a pessimist, regardless of the evidence.

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

And who has the time to properly research complex topics? Consider what it took for me to become aware of peak  everything, climate change, carrying capacity, overpopulation, soil erosion, exponential growth, and a hundred other related topics:

  • In high school I decided that my purpose in life was to get a big picture view of how the world worked across every field possible, from anthropology to zoology (see my energyskeptic booklist)
  • I suspect this is a rare goal because I haunted the non-fiction sections of the best bookstores in Berkeley and San Francisco and usually had those sections to myself
  • I wanted the most trustworthy books, but how could I know which ones were telling the truth? So I pursued critical thinking skills by subscribing to scientific and skeptical magazines.
  • 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 that’s constantly revised and fine-tuned as new evidence appears
  • It also took me a while to figure out that peer-reviewed evidence is best, and that some peer-reviewed evidence is better than others (i.e. an article about health based on 20,000 people over decades beats a mouse study)
  • Yet I still make mistakes, misinterpret, think I understand something but don’t, aren’t critical enough…so I value it when readers catch my errors and let me know
  • My career was in systems analysis which greatly enhanced my analytical skills
  • 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
  • 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 being pessimistic about Peak Oil and Hubbert’s Peak — see “Telling Others
  • Having the time to read. I don’t have children, and during my 30 year as a systems engineer/analyst, I read books as I walked 10 miles a day to and fro from work
  • 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 podcasts, news reports, books, and articles don’t sell, so who can blame the media for not publishing them?

I wouldn’t have found out about peak oil as soon as I did if I hadn’t read my Grandpa Pettijohn’s autobiography “Memories of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” in 2000.  I discovered he was a friend of M. King Hubbert, who predicted there would be a peak in world oil production around 2000 (and hey, it was 2000!), and accurately predicted the peak of oil in the lower 48 states in the early 70s (and it did in 1971), which has led to 16 years of investigation since then.  It helped that I was no stranger to the energy crisis — I’d been involved in an alt tech group during the first 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 bookstores.  But they never carried Gever’s 1991 “Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades”, Youngquist’s 1997 “Geodestinies”, and other books.  Nor would my research have gotten so far so quickly if I hadn’t learned about important books and articles on forums like energyresources.

A lot of what I write about are the barriers and obstacles to alternative energy resources that you seldom see elsewhere, and it is very hard for me to find this information. This is because 99.99% of what you see is positive, often a breakthrough of some sort. Negative news or lack of positive results doesn’t sell to the public and is often not published in scientific journals, a problem that has lately been recognized and will hopefully be remedied.  The bad news is usually buried at the end of 400-page department of energy papers, or critiques within the hydrogen, solar, or wind journal articles about the issues of approaches of other researchers in their field.

Since our entire civilization is fossil-fuel based, you would think that would be a major topic in school.  But very few people know how powerful oil is and difficult to substitute (see my energy overview here).  I am often accused of being in the pay of the oil industry.  I understand — I would have thought the same when I was younger when I believed that evil oil and coal companies were preventing renewable energy from replacing fossil fuels so they could make even more money.

And why would anyone even doubt good news?  Since what I’m saying is not in the mainstream news  it sounds crazy, and citations of scientific journals doesn’t impress most people because they don’t know the difference between good and bad evidence.  Hardly anybody follows “breakthroughs” to see how they panned out years later. There have been millions of battery breakthroughs since 1900 yet batteries still aren’t much better than they were 210 years ago.

The energy crisis is a LIQUIDS FUEL crisis. Electricity solves nothing because diesel fuel is used almost 100% of the time 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 think the scientists will come up with something, time is running out.  It would take 50 years or more to replace a billion combustion engines and the pipelines and 160,000 U.S. service stations with some other liquid fuel. Which won’t come from biomass for many reasons.  Electricity will only solve the problem if we can make electric trucks.  But that is far from happening and unlikely to ever happen due to laws of physics and thermodynamics (see “Who Killed the Electric Car“), issues with catenary (overhead wire) trucks, all-electric battery trucks, hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and other posts about electric trucks.

It is also highly unlikely that an 80 to 100% renewable electric grid is even possible, which I explain in three chapters of “When trucks stop running” about the electric grid and energy storage (and within energyskeptic), i.e. we don’t have a grid that can handle intermittent power, wind is seasonal, solar is seasonal, a national grid is a bad idea, best wind and solar locations near existing grid already taken, natural gas essential to balance wind/solar is finite, and so is biomass, utility-scale battery energy storage too expensive and there aren’t enough physical minerals on earth to build them except for sodium-sulfur, hydro-power (and pumped hydro storage) and geothermal locations are mostly built out with few locations left), very few compressed air sites in salt domes available (most are in 3 gulf states, and there’s only one west of the Mississippi), and so on.

Overly optimistic projects 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’t avoid being called a pessimist, because conversation is a soundbite, shorter than a twitter. You’ve got 10 seconds to present a tiny piece of evidence lacking nuance, when it could take at least a semester to understand the many complex issues of the energy crisis.

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

Though I must admit I’m perplexed that people don’t want to understand because this is a life and death issue. Many people have chosen college majors that will NOT be useful in a muscle and biomass based energy world, as all civilizations were before fossil fuels.  There is limited time left to move to a sustainable region of the country and gain skills like growing food, etc.  Although it’s obvious we ought to cut back on our consumption of goods and conserve energy, most Americans are doing the opposite.  As soon as oil prices went down, people started buying gas guzzling cars and light trucks, so the cafe standards have gone DOWN, not UP since 2014!  There is nothing more important than conserving oil, since unnecessary passenger cars and light trucks are sucking up 63% of the transportation oil, hastening the day when trucks, ships, and locomotives won’t have any fuel to run on.

I’ve pursued these grim topics because energy resources and the other many factors in the coming decline and fall of civilization connect the dots between almost every book I’ve ever read.  The systems analyst in me is fascinated by all the connections and inter-dependencies.  I’ve seen lists of “250 reasons why the Roman Empire failed”.  Our far more complex society will collapse for even more reasons, though ultimately mainly because of lack of oil, the master resource that makes all other resources available, including more oil.

Collapse will be a “death by a thousand cuts” — cuts that are already visible in our failing infrastructure, gulf dead zones, 6th extinction, climate change, pollution, eroded topsoil, empty aquifers.

Let’s hope wars over the remaining oil don’t bring collapse on even sooner than necessary.  There are still plenty of nuclear weapons in the world.



This entry was posted in 2) Collapse, Optimism & Critical Thinking, Peak Oil and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Pessimism and 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.

  4. john d says:

    I’d need three lifetimes to learn what you have learned; so thank you for doing the hard work for all of us.

    Collapse will be incomprehensibly horrifying. That it may accelerate very soon (years, not decades) is likely in my read of the data.

    Don’t write off Dr Perlmutter and the very large and growing low carb/high fat movement out there. In particular you might find the work of Alessio Fasano, among many, many others, to be of interest.

    • energyskeptic says:

      John, I have spent years reading peer-reviewed nutrition articles and textbooks at U.C. Berkeley, and I read every single citation of Perlmutter. NOT ONE of his own citations supported his claims, and most of them were not peer-reviewed. What a dishonest way to fool people! Many of his citations came from scammers that make money off of selling supplements and other garbage. Did you read my book review? Can you provide peer-reviewed evidence to back up Perlmutter and Alessio?

  5. You are so right, I use to say that I am not a pessimist but rather a realist.

  6. J.M. Christensen says:

    I say good riddance to the coming collapse (and it appears with late political trends, we’ve accelerated our trajectory towards that end). I live with a progressive genetic disorder (neurofibromatosis type-II), so am used to the idea of decline, loss, and ultimate death. My hope is that modern society fails before we completely unravel Earth’s biosphere. Hopefully, some humans will survive and carry on our more enlightened aspects; I think of how the Plague actually improved living conditions in Europe once it had passed (more available land, higher-quality food resources, etc.) and like to think once our global civilization as we know it is gone, something better will come along.

  7. Mark says:

    A new report on energy storage is available:

    PG&E Report of CAISO Battery Storage Trial: Coming of Age or Cautionary Tale | The Grid Optimization Blog

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