Olduvai Theory (doom +)

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Olduvai Theory

For Doomers who wish to raise thier sights.


"And we alone shall feed them...." the Inquisitor continues, "Oh, never,never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, 'Make us your slaves, but feed us.'" (Dostoevsky)

-- (Hallyx@aol.com), March 13, 2000


Man's spiritual need for sustenance transcends the physical. Dostoevsky fully understood this. Becoming a slave for food only 'works' if one sells their soul....and then it is tainted agreement with neither side trusting the other.


-- NH (new@mindspring.com), March 13, 2000.

I'm confused.

How exactly does less energy use per person constitute the end of civilization??

I have heard and read a lot of things about how much or how little oil, gas, rhodium, etc is left; no two figures are alike. It is obvious that most natural resources are finite, but I do not see how these figures postulate TEOTWAWKI.

Was it not around 1978 that Energy conservation became the buzzword?? Cars began to have more efficient engines, and people started to pay attention to turning out lights, buying more energy efficient appliances, etc..

Less energy use per person could simply be a function of higher awareness of energy waste. No? Am I being too simplistic.?

-- FutureShock (gray@matter.think), March 13, 2000.

Hallyx, don't you think other energy resources will be developed as needed, ie: fusion and increase use of nuclear power. That little robot on Mars was solar powered.


-- NH (new@mindspring.com), March 13, 2000.

There is an infinite amount of energy available in the vacuum (the newly theorized zero-point energy). The question is, will we learn how to harness it before the energy crisis intensifies.

-- (@ .), March 13, 2000.

Interesting theory, but it lacks the "immediate threat" quality preferred by discerning survivalists. It also ignores the transformational impacts of technology. This is the same mistake made by notables like the Rev. Thomas Malthus and the Club of Rome. If you take technological advances out of the equation, it is easy to predict horrid resource shortfalls.

In the energy sector, the Olduvai theory ignores the increasing efficiency of our energy use (as measured by BTU/$GDP). It also ignores the full potential of "alternative" sources like nuclear power. Any number of breakthroughs could change the equation. For example, we continue to see incremental improvements in clean technologies like fuel cells or solar power. A single transformational advance like cold fusion could radically alter the Olduvai "equation."

In addition, the sum of human knowledge is not likely to disappear. To return to a new "stone age" would require most of what we have learned during the past 6000 years to vanish. This does not seem likely.

Personally, I think survivalists are better served with threats like bio-weapons or nuclear terrorism. These dangers are much more immediate, plausible (and more scientifically grounded than Olduvai).

-- Ken Decker (kcdecker@worldnet.att.net), March 13, 2000.

Hydrogen, of which this universe has an almost limitless supply, is being harnessed. Check out the new fuel cell technology. All sounds good to me.

-- imho (Redy@or.not), March 13, 2000.

In addition to the points raised by FutureShock and Decker, I wish to note that Richard Duncan apparently fails to spot the discontinuity in Hoyle's writing quoted in part 2 of the article. There, Hoyle in one sentence writes about "high intelligence", then two sentences later is discussing "high-level technology" as though "intelligence" were synonymous with "technology". But they aren't. (Intelligence is probably correlated with potential capability for developing technology, but that's not the same, and it's not what Duncan's claiming.)

I think most anthropologists and others in related disciplines would agree that there is no evidence that a significant increase in _intelligence_ of Homo sapiens occurred over the past 5,000 years while its _technology_ grew enormously.

Duncan seems to roughly equate "level of industrial civilization" with either "intelligence" or "accumulated societal knowledge" through much of the rest of his article.

-- No Spam Please (nos_pam_please@hotmail.com), March 13, 2000.

excellent point, No Spam. Just what, exactly, do people think we have learned in the last 6,00 years? better weapons, further-reaching social control, less reliance on self. an argument can be made just as well for how dangerously much we've forgotten in the same time span.

i still think a camera is magic.

-- david moore (davidmoore01@excccite.com), March 13, 2000.

I can agree with Decker up to a point. He has left out one variable which results from the lack of progress in the so-called soft sciences. The hard sciences are screaming ahead [yea, at last I even include biology as a hard science]. The soft sciences have lagged. What are they? Sociology, Economics, Political Science, etc. For example, we can produce enough food and energy to raise everyones lifestyle to a level far above where it stands. Yet lack of infrastructure [roads, food storage, transportation, capital for investment, etc.] prevents this. Have you noticed that people who use the word modern technology never include Economics. Ken can explain why.

These failures lead to the variable that he has omitted: WATER. Usable water. Get on the stick. This will be a problem as the population increases. As large as any other. We can support the population that we see coming, but not without a redistribution of resources and a quality of life change for most people. Explaining that will be the job of economists.

Ken: just kicking the ant hill.


-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), March 13, 2000.


The "soft" sciences lack the appropriate mathematical tools. Most social phenomena is too complex for Newtonian calculus. As to your economics argument... capitalism is far better producing resources than distribing resources. Planned economies often suffer the same distribution dilemma without the benefit of enhanced production.

We actually have a tremendous amount of infrastructure. The problem with third world counties is not "lack of infrastructure" per se, but a lack of economic power to purchase necessary goods and services. A contributing factor is the lack of social, economic and political stability in some areas.

If North Korea suddenly discovered vast oil reserves... the primary problem would be political. Certainly, there is no shortage of firms willing to explore, drill, extract and ship petroleum. If North Korea were an open economy with a free market economy and a stable democracy... chances are they would enjoy a much higher standard of living with or without a massive oil find.

The problem with a planned economy is the interference with market forces... and its market forces that guide the development of infrastructure (for the most part.)

As for water, most of the plant is covered with the stuff. Desalinazation is not a difficult process... it just requires energy. In the U.S., water is cleaner today than it was 30 years ago (due the Safe Drinking Water Act). Population growth is slowing, particularly in the developed world. New technologies are allowing us to stretch resources and to use resources in ways less damaging to the environment.

If, we allow the market to fix water prices, we'll always have 'enough' water.

-- Ken Decker (kcdecker@worldnet.att.net), March 13, 2000.

Half the world's population lacks clean supply

From the BBC:

'Billions without clean water'

Water everywhere but very little is safe to drink By Claire Doole in Geneva

Half the world's population is living in unsanitary conditions without access to clean water, according to a United Nations report published on Monday.

The World Health Organisation says three billion of the world's most deprived people live in squalor and misery without access to proper sanitation.

One billion of them have no access to safe water at all.

But the UN says this does not have to be the case.

In its report, the UN argues that everyone could have clean drinking water and improved sanitation facilities within 25 years if governments made water provision a priority.

It says access to water should be seen as a basic human right as well as a key factor in the fight against diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

Radical rethink needed

UN water expert Brian Appleton says 5,000 children die needlessly every day from waterborne illnesses:

"That's equivalent to 12 full Jumbo jets crashing every day" he says.

"If 12 full Jumbo jets were crashing every day, the world would want to do something about it - they would want to find out why it was happening."

The UN is calling on governments to concentrate on community-based initiatives, which it says are more cost-effective and efficient than hi-tech centralised water-supply policies.

Such projects in India, Bolivia, Ethiopia and Tanzania have dramatically improved people's living conditions and health levels, it argues.

But, the UN warns, time is running out.

Efforts to improve global hygiene are not keeping pace with the population explosion.

If governments do not radically rethink their policies, the UN says, the world's water crisis will get worse.

-- (@ .), March 13, 2000.


If, we allow the market to fix water prices, we'll always have 'enough' water .

That, of course, is nonsense. Market prices cannot change the availabilty of a limited resource, when demand exceeds supply for a given area. Unfortunately, I must leave town again tonight. I will get back to your water statement when I return.

Best wishes,,,

-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), March 13, 2000.

The trouble with the market is that it is reactive. We have a good R&D start on technologies which, while probably inadequate to ever replace oil joule for joule, at least show promise of mitigating the pain of our running out of fossil fuels. Knowledgable people heavilly discount fusion, vacuum energy, microwave satellites or other "miracle" cures---do you want to have to rely on them?

As long as oil is cheaper than alternatives, the market will not encourage alternatives. When we finally need to develop industry and agriculture based on other sources, we'll be building that economic infrastucture with much more expensive oil. Like not budgetting for a new car until your old one blows up, then having to spend more to replace it.

I find that my typing inadequacies and time constraints preclude my defending Duncan's thesis. For those who are sincerly interested, you might read this as a softcore intro to the problem. Oil Peak Primer

A professional debate on this issue can be found at Debate

Or, if you want to dive into the deep end, see the energy section at Jay Hanson's site Dieoff Don't let the title put you off. Jay just has a flare for the dramatic. The articles are dead serious (Pardon the pun.)

This energy argument is at the core of much wider debate for which I used the Time Bomb 2000 forum as an exemplar of peoples' sociological and psychological reactions to a crisis. If anyone is seriously interested in further discussing this, among a group of professionals and well-informed amateurs, please feel free to contact me.

I've pasted below a little something to whet your interest.


Gas Prices Fit for Chicken Little

Energy: If you think the sky is falling now, just wait. Things will be getting worse.

Richard B. Anderson

Los Angeles Times

There's no shortage today of outrage over gasoline prices; if we could fuel cars with anger, prices would go right down again. Nor is there a shortage of irony for anybody with an inkling of what the world's oil situation is really like.

Today's complaints are going to seem trivial when prices begin to go up more or less without end, and that's going to happen quite soon, probably within a decade. The end of cheap oil is in sight--a truly epochal event that is going to change everything. Given the state of our current understanding, it seems unlikely that we'll handle it well.

Part of our problem with understanding has to to with previous handwringing about petroleum prices and supplies. Those who were around for the oil price shock of the early 1970's will remember rash predictions that the world would soon run out of oil. Because the OPEC reductions in supply of petroleum were purely man-made and transitory, those predictions turned out to be false, an outcome that led some to conclude that all predictions were to be ignored.

There was one prediction, however, that had already proved true before the OPEC embargo was ever imposed. In 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert proposed that for any finite resource such as oil, production would rise along a bell-shaped curve that would peak when approximately half the resource was gone. He foretold that oil production in the United States would increase year-by-year until 1969, give or take a year, and then decline ever afterwards. Hubbert's prediction was astonishingly accurate.

The amount of oil produced in America peaked in 1970, and has gone down ever since, notwithstanding the discoveries in Alaska and elsewhere.

Using techniques similar to Hubbert's, geologists Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere predicted in the March 1998 issue of "Scientific American" that world oil production will reach its highest point at some time before the year 2010. (Substitute fuels and technological innovations might delay the peak by a decade or so, if developed and deployed appropriately). The peaking of production does not mean that the world will be out of oil--far from it. More than half of the resource will still be left. But the total amount taken from the Earth each year will begin to decline, while demand will continue to increase.

The result will be an inexorable rise in the price of petroleum. Where the price of oil and gasoline has been steadily going down, adjusted for inflation (even with the recent increases, it's still historically inexpensive), suddenly the price will go up and up and up.

If the end of cheap oil is a decade or two away, the implications for Americans are hard to understate. Try imagining the greater Los Angeles area with gasoline at five or ten dollars a gallon. Doesn't work, does it? Our civilization depends on the availability of virtually free energy. Our buildings and roads, our towns and cities are built to the measure of the automobile. And oil is a material as well as a fuel, the primary source of a myriad of products.

As the price of oil rises, there will be radical stresses and dislocations in our American economy and society. It's currently fashionable to believe that market forces and technology will solve any conceivable problem with the supply of petroleum. There are some promising developments along those lines, including a new kind of solar cell based on organic materials. But those technologies and market forces had better get a move on, because this monumental change is very near to us in time.

Once production peaks, the transition to a new kind of economy will have to begin. Given the scale of the problem, alternatives should already be in hand and in the process of implementation.

Yet, so far there are few signs of systematic thought or action on this problem, or even explicit notice of it. The current outrage over gas prices is not very relevant in this context, except as a symptom of denial. The reality is that we've built our civilization around something we knew wasn't going to last. That's a challenging position to be in, and some degree of psychological wavering is to be expected. Yet our responsibility to our children demands that we face the facts as they are, and start to build a more viable future. Let's stop whining, and start planning.

-- (Hallyx@aol.com), March 13, 2000.

>> As for water, most of the plant is covered with the stuff. Desalinazation is not a difficult process... it just requires energy. <<

But the need for water is greatest in places most remote from the sea. Up jumps another distribution problem, and still more energy required.

On another note, what the market excels at is the efficient expropriation, extraction and organization of ever greater amounts of pre-existing resources. In the process, we humans and our domesticated animals are monopolizing an ever-greater percentage of the total global carrying capacity for ourselves. Given a free hand, the market will feed, clothe and house billions more humans than today. And in all liklihood, tens of thousands of species will become extinct or threatened as a direct result.

We get more. They get less. When survival is played at the global scale it is very nearly a zero-sum game. The same niche can usually feed only one competitor.

This is an old story. Apparently, when humans entered North America, we already had sufficiently advanced hunting technology that a considerable percentage of the large ungulate species living in both North and South America became extinct within about 800 to 1000 years. Their bones show up in great numbers in "Clovis point" camp sites. No doubt, the other predators who preyed on these species had to change their diet or disappear.

All the large, flightless birds of New Zealand went extinct within about 300 to 400 years after the Maori arrived. The Dodo's fate was sealed by the fact that it was tasty and easy to catch. Nowadays, it is not a sufficient defense to be a species we don't eat. All you have to do is live in a habitat we want to remodel for our own purposes.

But the market, no doubt about it, is a marvelous engine for efficiently driving this process of appropriating all the good things of the earth for human use and enjoyment. As a byproduct, all those species who benefit from our tireless reshaping of the world are thriving, too: cows, American robins, pigs, crows, raccoons, chickens, coyotes, dandelions, sheep, deer, house flies, starlings, pigeons, and so on.

But, lest anyone think that I am just griping about market forces, I would like to state that the only counter-weight I know that could possibly alter the current trend I am deploring is not to defeat the market, but to enlist it.

The least-well-distributed commodity in most markets is information. Unless people know what price they are paying, they cannot make an informed decision to buy. Someday, when you look at the price tag of a consumer item, I hope it will convey a much truer picture of its lifetime cost, from extraction to disposal. That way, we won't mistakenly buy a mess of pottage and pay for it with our birth right.

-- Brian McLaughlin (brianm@ims.com), March 13, 2000.


There is more than enough water... the problem is not everyone has the economic power to acquire this water. We have grain rotting in fields while people starve. Why? Because the people cannot buy the grain. Same principle.

If there is meaningful social, economoic and political reform in the third world, the inhabitants will have the ability to meet their own water needs. Water is not scarce. What is scarce is money within the third world to develop water production and treament facilities.


The market reacts, but also anticipates. The reason firms invest in R&D is to take advantage of future opportunities. As for the new technologies... who knows where the breakthroughs will occur? How many people believed in nuclear power before 1945?

As for the market, oil will not suddenly became rare as diamonds. As supply decreases, prices will rise. Increasing prices make substitute goods more attractive. If we were paying $10 a gallon for gas, alternative fuels would look far better.

You (nor I) are smarter than the marketplace. We cannot guess "when" the right time to develop alternative fuels. The work will proceed as businesses find it profitable. Will the market solve all of our problems? I'm not sure... but I cannot think of a better alternative, particularly not a planned economy approach.

-- Ken Decker (kcdecker@worldnet.att.net), March 13, 2000.

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