Thursday, September 2, 2010

Peak Oil, "Big Education" and "Big Science"

.Image: Big Education; graduation ceremony

Image: Big Science; Linear Accelerator interior, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, 1957

My previous text discussed the set of arguments I use to try to explain what each member of society should know, worry about and act upon before peak oil strikes us with full force. In this text, I develop some ideas that relate to, but didn't quite fit the previous text. It starts out a little rambling but moves on the the issue of peak oil and higher education/research in the second half of the text. You can jump there directly if that is your main cup of tea, I've made it easy to find.

Peak oil is unfortunately a new idea to most people, and the natural reaction for someone who has never heard about it is to instinctively simply push all this worrysome new meme away and carry on living life as usual, as before.

Unfortunately, peak oil will not disappear just because we choose not to think about it. We still have a date with peak oil in the future, and the time of this date is approaching relentlessly and without regard to what we happen to think or feel. (Think of the Titanic as a ship that had a date with an iceberg.) But in the case of peak oil, it is not so much a date as a "shotgun marriage" that will last forever after.

One of, if not the main problem with peak oil is this great ignorance. Comprehension among too many of our non-PO-educated friends is and will remain sadly inadequate as we are moving towards the chaotic post-peak-oil era. NOTE: In order to avoid being accused of being overly pessimistic I would like to stress that some things most likely will turn out for the better compared to today - but only after we have passed through a turbulent and confusing period.

In plain language: We have no idea what life will look like on the other side of peak oil and how long it will take to get there. But there is no doubt (to me) that the transition will be painful. Major social change is always painful. Individuals will suffer when entire business areas (for example air travel) are eradicated and people loose their jobs, and when things we have taken for granted are denied to us not only temporarily, but for all time (holidays in Thailand, or to able to buy what we like on a Saturday afternoon in the shopping mall).

But back to the topic of societal ignorance and misunderstandings in relation to peak oil. To not understand what is happening and why it happens naturally reduces the chances of making the right decisions and doing the right things at the right time - both on an individual and a societal level. Until the very end, individuals will get into debt to buy new, fancy cars for tens of thousands of dollars, and we will continue to build new airports and new highways until the very end. A guy who sat across me at a party last year told me he had just bought a house in Thailand and he hoped to be able to visit it a few weeks every year and rent out to tourists the rest of the time. I wish him good luck but I don't expect he will have much.

If we who think of oil and energy as critical factors are right, and if our way of thinking turns out to be a good “lens” through which we can understand our world today and tomorrow, then the absence of this lens will make people not see the connections, become confused, make the wrong decisions, throw good money after bad and accuse the wrong parties when the effects of their choices in life collide with a non-cooperating reality. Such a “lens” through which we interpret and understand data and processes is what researchers usually call a "theory". And without one, our thoughts are easily led in the wrong direction. Richard Heinberg has expressed it as follows:

''...yet people won't be talking about the oil peak. They'll be talking about the unemployment figures. They'll be talking about the high price of food. They'll be talking about the fact that you can't get on an airliner and travel anymore because the airline industry has collapsed, there are only a few carriers still in business and tickets are astronomically expensive. They'll be talking about the latest war or terrorist incidents. They will have completely lost sight of the one event that caused all of those effects.''

Peak oil, higher education and research

Regarding my own area, higher education, I take for granted that it will at best shrink considerably in size and scope. As late as in the early 1950's less than 5% of an age cohort in England, France or Australia went on to higher education/university studies - and that still represented a doubling compared to only a decade or two earlier (according to Alison Wolf in her great book "Does Education Matter?: Myths about Education and Economic growth").

Today in Sweden, virtually everyone with the capacity (and some without it) start senior high school at the age of 16 (98-99% of an age cohort). Furthermore, about 40% of an age cohort now commence some sort of higher (university) education before the age of 25. There is (or has been) a political (Social Democratic) goal that 50% of an age cohort should proceed to higher education, but I don’t know the exact reason why. The general arguments I have encountered are precariously weak in their logic and vaguely refers to slogans about "democracy", "competing with the rest of the world" or perhaps something about "preparing for the knowledge societey". I assume that the whole thing is half dogma and half a disguised (and expensive) measure to reduce unemployment numbers among the youth.

The last figure I pull out my magic hat is that up to 3% of an age cohort in Sweden nowadays study to complete a Ph.D. degree. I can not remember if this figure refers to people who start or who finish their Ph.D. studies – in any case it results in quite a few Ph.D. students – approximately 3,000 new ones each year in a small country such as Sweden! Of course, all those long years in school cost a lot of money, and the educational-industrial complex is another line of “business” that peak oil will substantially reduce the size of.

I believe that if we will afford to maintain higher education and research (which of course anyway has to shrink in size and scope), we will see substantial changes in priorities within and between different research areas and academic disciplines. It is hardly a wild guess that there will be less funds allocated to "big science", that is, large-scale projects usually funded by a government or groups of governments, with a Big Budget, Big Staffs, Big Laboratories and Big Machines. There will be less funding for researchers interested in large particle accelerators and in the origins of the universe. We can just forget about projects that require lots of scientists and terribly expensive equipment in order to achieve incremental (and marginal) results of doubtful practical utility.

Quite recently (June 22) I read on the front of the magazine Computer Sweden that "KTH [the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden] invests 133 million" SEK - 20 million USD - in buying a new supercomputer which will be one of the fastest computers in Europe (temporarily of course). I find it hard to understand why an expense of 133 million is called an "investment". A more proper headline would be that "KTH spend 133 million". The negative equivalent to "KTH invests" would be “KTH wastes 133 million”. In any case, it is hard to believe that anyone 10-20 years from now will receive funding to by a gadget for 133 million SEK, with the possible exception of energy research in some much-needed area.

But a computer for 20 million USD is a drop in the ocean compared to the more than 6 000 million Euros that France and the rest of Europe now have to fork up for the 2012 construction of an experimental fusion power plant (ITER). The project is now on shaky economic ground after the financial crisis and as the costs are running away from what was earlier projected and budgeted (and that is even before any actual construction has started). There are other partners in the project (U.S., Russia, Japan, Korea, China, India), and the total estimated cost for this experimental power plant is currently 16 000 million Euros. And the costs might become significantly higher if we take into consideration that they have grown by 10 000 million Euros (!) compared to calculations made back in 2001. I will happily bet (and give the generous odds 5 to 1) that this fusion power plant will never be completed. Is there anyone who dares to bet against me? Construction is planned to take 10 years and I will generously let my offer stand until 2030. The fight for money has already begun and "researchers in other fields [are] wondering whether their funding will suffer if funds are diverted to ITER".

Overall, today's specialization in the research community (where people qualify themselves by knowing a lot in increasingly smaller areas), is likely to decrease as the number of scientists and the amount of available money for research decrease. To know more and more about less and less will become a dead end, whereas the ability to connect various areas will become more interesting. Perhaps the interest in some "soft" social sciences such as psychology, sociology, political science and peace/conflict research will increase - provided that those research fields start to investigate peak oil-related questions:

- How can we live together in a world of shrinking resources?
- How can we provide treatment / therapy to people who are addicted to shopping but who are no longer able get their "fix"?
- What do we do with middle-aged skilled careerists who have lost their job, their car and their house, and consequently their identity, their drive and their motivation?
- How can we understand the (coming) popular movement of gardening?
- How can we deal with young people’s (justified) disappointment and aggression towards the generation of their parents?
- What are we to do with all Peak Oil refugees when they knocks on our door and want to enter? Or with climate terrorists with little or nothing to loose?
- How do we phase out all the benefits that the state has generously offered without having too many people suffer too much?
- How should society cope with declining stock markets (which will also affect our pensions)?
- How do we create institutions at a local level that can work towards reducing dependency on the rest of the world?
- How do we rebuild our strategic basic industries which left Sweden 20 or 50 years ago?
- How do we transform our agriculture to become less energy intensive?
- What kind of health care can we afford in the future? How should it be organized? How do you explain in a pedagogical way that surgery X or medicine Y is no longer available?
- How do we create a primary and high school curriculums (and find teachers) who can prepare our youth for the real 21st century?
... and so on ...

Of course, energy research will be of immense interest. Maybe there are also lessons to be learned from the use of technology in today's developing countries (for example on the use of mobile technology and low-tech off-grid energy solutions)? Just the idea of a reversed transfer of knowledge from developing countries to more developed countries is staggering...

Of course, researchers will no longer be able to travel back and forth all over the world to attend conferences, so the transfer of knowledge between researchers will by neccessity become more regional (or can the Internet make up for decreased mobility?). Swedish researchers (as well as the population in general) will have to put up with travelling only in Europe, or maybe, as time goes by, only in Scandinavia, or Sweden. This contraction will of course affect which languages our youth will learn in primary school and high school. We ought to experience a renaissance of languages spoken in areas geographically close to us (not the least Norwegian and Danish), and a decreased interest in "exotic" languages such as Arabic, Japanese and Chinese.

One last guess that does not feel too daring is that economics in its present form will be discredited and kicked to the dust bin of history in the same way that scientific communism was non-honorably retired 20 years ago. My guess is that as the world changes, traditional neoclassical economists in particular will be depicted as Quislings of our time or even as accomplices to the crash, and they will become as popular as racial anthropologists are in today's university world.

Nevertheless, we need some kind of economic theories, and the ones I believe are most likely to suceed are the (presently) radical ideas of biophysical and ecological economics. The non-negotiable starting point for these theories is what the Earth can bear - how extensive our human (economic) activities can be without destroying our environment and our ability to create wealth even in the (far) future. When we move from expansion to contraction, we also move from the economy of opportunities to the economy of restrictions - or why not the economy of the real world.

In the 1800s we hunted whales to the end of the world, on journeys that lasted several years, in order to illuminate our homes. When whales began to run low, we were saved by the discovery of kerosene, but what will save us this time? Many are those who have read too many fairy tales or watched too many movies to be able to imagine a story without a happy ending. Those are the people who got frustrated when Obama or BP simply failed to fix that oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico right away. At best, they suspect monumental incompetence and at worst they suspect a conspiracy. They have a skewed picture of reality, because they are convinced that every challenge can be solved by American know-how, and that a group of brilliant-but-misunderstood scientists somewhere had a solution, but were hampered by evil bureaucrats or the governments from once and for all plugging that hole (see "American faith in magic Technological exacerbates frustration with the Gulf of Mexico oil leak").

Unfortunately, I personally believe there of courser aren't any guarantees of happy endings except in fictional stories - products created for a mass market – whose purpose is to make us feel comfortable. The last 200 years has been one long success story - at least for us here in the West. Unfortunately, the good times will not last forever. What irritates me is that we have not used the good times to prepare for the bad.

In the Bible, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat and seven lean cows as representing seven good years to be followed by seven years of poor harvests. Pharaoh had the Egyptians prepare by storing food during the good years, and they survived the crisis (hooray!). But we have lived with an unprecedented abundance, without giving tomorrow more than a fleeting thought once every leap year. Instead of starting to slow down, we continue to press the pedal to the metal right into the hairpin curve.

Dmity Orlov argues that if we put our trust in an intervention from "outside", the only "reasonable" hope is that friendly extraterrestrials will show up just in time to save humanity (all seven billion) and our consumption-addicted society. As if.

I think our grandchildren will hear many, many stories and moralizing tales about arrogance, wastefulness, gluttony and short-term thinking and that many of the stories will have unhappy endings ("that’s what happens if you don’t..."). These stories will constitute an appropriate training for entry into a tough world, and also a good way to mentally work through challenges and changes happening around us in Sweden and abroad.

In all honesty I am more pessimistic about our (society's) lack of understanding and our inability to cope with peak oil, than I am about peak oil itself. Thus, if we used our still-considerable resources to immediately start preparing society for peak oil, then I would not be very worried at all. And if pigs could fly...


  1. "But back to the topic of societal ignorance and misunderstandings in relation to peak oil."

    Soon after Galileo trained his new instrument, the so-called "telescope", on the rings of Saturn, the entire world's perception of things changed.

    Today there is a new instrument being trained upon the 'final frontier' where few have dared to go before, the inner space of man's cranium.

    The new instrument of metrology is known as an fMRI. It allows us to peer into the working brain in real time and see what really goes on inside.

    The true problem of Peak Oil, ignorance and so forth lies not in the geology but in ourselves and how we fail to even know who we are and how we operate.

    The first step towards possible progress will come when our children are trained in mass in the science of neuro-biology and not in the pseudo science of "economics".

  2. I have a more pessimistic view. We might train a few people in neuro-biology, but for the most part we will remain slaves to our ways of thinking and drawing conclusions that had worked well for millions of years - up until now.

    I'm for example amazed when I read that people in the coming election are now prepared to "punish" Obama for not having "fixed" the economy in 20 months. As if the present woes of the US economy is something that could be "fixed" in a year or two. We are all getting closer to an unprecedented "break point" that has been building for 50, 100, 200 years and there is little any one person can do, even the president of the United States (or perhaps *especially* the president of the United States).

  3. I'm amazed ... that people in the coming [USA] election are now prepared to "punish" Obama for not having "fixed" the economy [or the BP oil leak with Yankee "ingenuity"]

    Nothing to be amazed about. Really.

    Watch the monkeys at the zoo flinging "mud" at each other. We are the same. We realize deep down that we are trapped in a cage of one kind or another and we seek "exceptionalism".

    By flinging mud at a mate in the cage, we fool ourselves into believing we are "special" because with "mud" on their face the victims of our blame casting appear "inferior" as compared to our self-deluding images of ourselves.

    It is all part of one basic but irrational coping mechanism. Monkeys at the zoo do it. We do it. All of us.