It’s incredible how some old, bad ideas linger on in human minds and make their way through history even or despite having been roundly disproven and everyone just trying to defend them should be laughing stock. However, they persist and camouflage under new sexy buzzwords and terms.
The new/old crap raining down on us in truckloads is the “Peak everything” fallacy brought forward by the author Richard Heinberg in a new book. Richard wants us to believe that as the 20th century was a century of growth, the 21st would have to be a century of decline.
He says that the world is running out of everything we need from the planet. Oil, coal, food, metals, space, air, water and whatever else is coming to mind that is securing the survival of the human (and many other) species becomes scarce and consequently impossible to get. At superficial review (not even skin deep) it seems to make a hell of a lot of sense. However, do the facts on the ground support this foolish claim?
We are living in a closed Ecosystem on a planet with finite mass, finite space, and finite resources and consequently a finite number of things it can produce – at least volume wise. The amount of sunlight the planet receives every day, staggering as it may be, is still a finite number. The amount of oil in its crust, even if it ballooned with the advent of shale, is still a finite amount and parcels of arable land are most definitely finite on the earth’s surface as also the total surface of the planet is still a finite number.
In the end, the public has a simple and incredibly seducing formula to deal with. If there is just a certain saleable amount of something and if one keeps taking away from that pile, it will end up exhausted. In the protagonist’s mind, we are sucking this planet dry and then we will wither and die and the planet with us.
In reality, the only thing that seems to be around in sheer infinite quantities is human ignorance and outright stupidity. Yes, you read me right. I believe that we all are outright idiots because we chose to be.
Let us peek at human nature. Are all humans idiots? Hell no – there are fortunately great numbers of outstanding specimen around. However, even the smartest human is an idiot at times. I am overweight and should not eat as much as I do. Does that keep me away from the fridge? No way.
So being an idiot depends on the situation for pretty much everyone. Well, I admit that there are plenty of total idiots out there. They excel at nothing at all and the only thing they do is wasting our time. I am sure you know such a jerk yourself.
What does all this have to do with “Peak everything” and why is it plain wrong?
The end of times or the end of resources has been predicted for millennia but the doomsayers have eventually found their archangel in Thomas Malthus, a British economist at the beginning of the 19th century. Thomas lived through the thick of the first industrial revolution in its heartland England and saw humanity in steep decline.
People found the rapid rise of technology just as threatening as we do today, but absolute levels of technological acceptance were different. When today a smartphone has lost its magic to even the most ardent technophobes, the introduction of a power loom was a deadly threat to manufacturers of the just dawning 19th century.
This also coincides with the emergence of the Luddite movement, a grouping of English artisans that worried that their lifestyles would be endangered by the rise of those still primitive machines.
Those machines had nothing terminator like so eventually society that depended more and more on them, absorbed them mentally and now they are so ingrained in our lifestyle, we could not imagine life without those amenities anymore.
Back to Malthus. He was no idiot by any measure but rather was part of the intellectual elite of the time. He watched how populations swelled beyond anything experienced so far because of the goodies modern science and industrial output threw on them. He saw unspeakable hardship and humans living in squalor – just look at movies and depictions of England during the first industrial revolution. He saw the dehumanization it all brought and he worried that if humanity continued growing at this pace, we would eventually run out of resources in order to offer those masses a life worth living.
The world Thomas Malthus lived in had just jumped the 1 billion mark in 1804. As we know quite well, humanity has gone wildly beyond even the most daring imagination of Malthus to more than 7 billion today and still no sign of a collapse of civilization.
Fast forward to 1972 when the Club of Rome issued its report “Limits to growth” and again the world was on the brink of despair as everything was about to run out. My personal favorite from this time is the famous wager between Paul Ehrlich from the Club of Rome and the Princeton economist Julian Lincoln Simon.
Simon held that the world would never run out of anything except human brains as any shortage would immediately trigger scarcity, which would produce high prices which in turn creates the economic rationale for R&D that would not only solve the original problem but even improve on the entire situation. This is what motivates us to grow and prosper. Humans have moved from the grasslands into cities for a lack of the resource grassland as populations swelled out of control and the plains could not support so many souls anymore.
There is plenty of grassland today – who wants to go back living as a hunter-gatherer in one of the countless National Parks or roam the plains of the Mid-West? I dare, I double dare you. Anyone dreaming grandiose dreams of a life free from electrical power, protection from the elements, medical doctors, and all the other things civilization bestowed on us. The opportunity is there and it has been brought to us by the rise of technology as most of us have chosen to live off the plains.
Ehrlich and Simon agreed that they would watch the performance of a given number of commodities over a certain timespan. The period of observance was chosen to be rather long in order to rule out isolated incidents and establish clear and undisputed trends. Ehrlich would have won the wager if the relative price level went up and Simon won if they went down.
Simon won the first wager and every successive one on that as his theory proved correct. Every time when there were high prices for some time in any given trade, the market eventually found alternatives that ended the shortage and even produced copious oversupply crushing prices in the end. Humanity was always better off than before the original scarcity had occurred.
Why should this be different now? Humanity had always invented itself out of trouble so what on earth should have happened to end this right now? Quite to the contrary, we are in an age of unprecedented progress and scientific progeny and we can, therefore, expect there to be ever more and even better solutions.
In energy, we are still in the age of burning things that have been produced in earth’s crust in a chemical reaction producing earth-destroying toxins in the process. It is coming to an end as there is not so much of the easily extractable black stuff anymore. The situation gives rise to bridge solutions such as shale and will, in the end, lead to a brand new, renewable and emissions-free world. Without the scarcity, we would not devote so much energy to finding alternatives.
We are still using huge patches of the earth’s surface in order to produce our food and still more surface area in order to live in endless suburbs producing endless logistics problems when all those people want to move to and fro work.
Now, with the space problem is at its pinnacle in Asia and many cities around the world, new solutions are developed. Vanilla real estate makes people think hard about how to use it better. High-rise buildings will not like shoeboxes anymore. Honestly, just look at most of the current high-rises. No matter how sexy their facades are, they are still rat cages. In the future, we will live in vertical cities where all aspects of human life will be integrated into those mega structures. Living or working in those places will not feel like the prison cell like blocks of today anymore. There will be greenery, leisure, work and any kind of recreation directly available. It will not be necessary to move down to the cramped surface in order to jump from one mega structure to the next. We will become cloud dwellers. What is bad with that?
It will not feel like living in a huge city block anymore but could feel like a village in the sky with copious green spaces, recreation, and air.
This is just one example on how the space problem might be tackled. I am sure that more creative minds than me will dream up much more creative solutions to that. Most of them will do so as they see an incredible opportunity in the problem.
One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s Pot Pourri – that is a line from the Grinch. All throughout human history, there were those who took the problem by the horns and transformed it into something profitable to themselves – and eventually to humankind.
This simple but ultimately super powerful mechanism is at work everywhere. That is, we need our problems. They are the fuel to fire up our motivational machine so we are able to crank out all this stuff that makes life so much better today.
I know, many still harbor warm and fuzzy feelings about the so-called “good old times”. However, those times were always old and very rarely good. Do you remember heart surgery with your thorax wide open, black smoke spewing diesel engines, dead rivers and the tape player munching your precious recordings when you tried to impress your new girlfriend with the latest tunage? Romantic memories sure, but good?
We are not running out of the planet, as some would like to suggest. We are running out of new brains so what we really need is many more brains.
It is more likely to find geniuses in a million rather than in a thousand. However, overpopulation is still being seen as a problem when in fact, humans are our best resource. The planet can handle it – if only we would go beyond peak idiots.