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Friday, October 14, 2005

Rifkin, survivor

First Jimmy Carter makes a resurgence in the editorial pages for his prescient thinking, now Jeremy Rifkin gets his turn to remind us of what he wrote several decades ago -- without rubbing it in at all. And if the pundits and right wingers do get started on his case (according to Time Magazine, "the most hated man in science"), let's remind them of his relative accuracy along the timeline of history.

U.S. lower-48 oil production -- year 0 to 2005 A.D.

See the 1970's there? That includes disco, Nixon, pet rocks, punk rocks, the all-time best movies, and Carter and Rifkin and Erhlich. And Erhlich's chief critic back then, Julian Simon, remains a footnote in history.
Today, many of Julian Simon’s views on population and natural resources are so triumphant that they are almost mainstream. No one can rationally look at the evidence today and still claim, for example, that we are running out of food or energy. But those who did not know Julian or of his writings in the 1970s and early 1980s cannot fully appreciate how viciously he was attacked—from both the left and the right. Paul Ehrlich once snarled that Simon’s writings proved that "the one thing the earth will never run out of is imbeciles." A famous professor at the University of Wisconsin wrote, "Julian Simon could be dismissed as a simpleminded nut case, if his ideas weren’t so dangerous."

To this day I remain convinced that the endless ad hominem attacks were a result of the fact that—try as they would—Simon’s critics never once succeeded in puncturing holes in his data or his theories. What ultimately vindicated his theories was that the doomsayers’ predictions of global famine, $100 a barrel oil, nuclear winter, catastrophic depletion of the ozone layer, falling living standards, and so on were all discredited by events. For example, the year 2000 is almost upon us, and we can now see that the direction in which virtually every trend of human welfare has moved has been precisely the opposite of that predicted by Global 2000. By now Simon and Kahn’s contrarian conclusions in The Resourceful Earth look amazingly prescient.

Thanks to Big Gav for the link.


Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The Limits of Growth" gave us about three decades before the problems really begin. 30 years is a very convenient time frame: it is so far away that there is plenty of time to do something, there is no hurry, and we don't need to do nothing now. Now were are there and the problems are here.

But I think we know today something that Meadows & Meadows, Ehrlich and others did not understand then and that gave Julian Simon, Kahn and others the opportunity to dismiss it all. This something was the role of energy. The Club of Rome and its world model approach treated all resources alike and applied the Liebigs law. They tried to find those resources of the many (they had about 200 of them) that would be the primary constraints of growth and would cause the trend break.

The methodology was not correct. They didn't see that energy is the underlying factor of the other resources. The predictions of the world food crisis have not realized because of the increased use of energy in farming and food supply in general. The problems with constraining resources have been overcome with the help of energy. Natural raw materials have been substituted by synthetics - with energy.

This gave gave the optimistic view that technology - or "mankind" - could push aside all the constraining factors the would prevent continuing growth. In this sense the doomsayers had really wrong. But there still are limits to growth. When we don't any more have more energy it will not be possible to use it to pushing aside every problem on the road to further growth. Then the hundreds of possibly constraining resources come back.

2:10 PM  
Professor Blogger SW said...

I think the previous poster has a bit of it in the sense that part of the illusion was a shifting of resources that was facilitated by massive consumption of cheap energy. But in the future when we are able to look back on this in retrospect, the Club of Rome will have been proven to be remarkably accurate. Those who attacked their conclusions resembling nothing so much as someone who mistakes the left hand side of a normal distribution for infinite exponential growth.

I think that it will be shown that if there was an error in the original projections (and consider that it was one of the first computer modeling efforts of this kind ever undertaken) it was that the growth for Asia was predicted to be more consistent. It was expected to have been much greater up until this point. With China's re-emergence it has now kicked into high gear, making up for lost time. It looks more like a step function. But they anticipated that substantially increased demand from Asia would have been present much sooner.

5:34 PM  
Professor Blogger JMS said...

Love that link to the Julian Simon eulogy:

"Two weeks before Julian died, I was driving through central Iowa and was surprised and delighted to find gasoline selling for 89 cents a gallon. I hadn’t seen gas prices that low since before the OPEC embargo in the early 1970s. I instantly thought of Julian. It was one of those little real-world events that confirm that he was right all along. "

We're surpised and delighted of late.

Not so much in a good way.

10:18 PM  
Professor Blogger Mark Plus said...

If you read Simon's population works in conjunction with his autobiographical self-help book on overcoming depression, titled Good Mood, you could infer that he confabulated his cornucopian theory as a means of personal psychotherapy. BTW, if we could have retroactively run Simon-like bets on resources from 1995 to now for, say, North Atlantic cod catches, oil prices, North American natural gas prices and so forth, the bettor who predicted higher real prices or lower physical supplies in 2005 would have won the bets.

8:33 AM  
Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Club of Rome forecast was of course very accurate for such a long period. In fact is was remarkable. It shows the force of physical prognostication vs. purely econometric one. M. King Hubbert had basically same ideas in the '70s but he was more aware of the significance of energy.

Nevertheless nothing much was done and it is true that the world development was positive for the next three decades. If everything is well how could we convince anybody to do something to change the course of development? True, the Club of Rome model predicted an overshoot and collapse - everything was to be well and even better until...

I think we have here the real problem now. Is the overshoot-collapse model really realistic? From energy viewpoint we could say that it might not be. World energy supply is not going to collapse but only diminish rather slowly. If energy is the dominating factor this would mean a slow decline, not a crash. So no doomsday scenarios here either.

Now, if we present false doomsday scenarios for the Peak Oil we might land in the same situation than the Club of Rome. We have basically right but nobody believes it and the scenarios will not help to take right action.

We have already had a peak oil experience: in 2000 - 2002. It was hardly noticed. Well, there were 9/11 and two new wars, but...

10:18 AM  
Professor Blogger @whut said...

that I would call an 89 cent footnote.

4:47 PM  

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