Wednesday, 25 January 2012

A Fundamental Change

Time to get down to business here. What's this blog about anyway?

In my first post I explained the title, which is from a quote by Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Feynman was talking about scientists pursuing their careers, but I mean this in the sense of understand the world so as to be able to effectively live one's everyday life.
In my second post I explained the "Reality Based" part of the subtitle. It is so important to use critical thinking and skepticism to come to know the world, rather than giving in to credulity and just believing what feels nice.

Today and in the next few posts, I'll explain what I mean by "the age of scarcity".

Let me start with a little background.

I was born in 1954. When Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in July of 1969, I was 15 years old. I was a keen student, interested in science and math, an avid reader of science fiction and aiming for a career in engineering. Like most everyone else at the time, I believed in progress and it sure looked like the sky was the limit. We had the world (if not the universe) by the tail and were in for a great ride. Mankind's ingenuity, expressed in technology, was going to solve all our problems. Nature seemed like a chancy sort of mistress -- it was best to get off this planet and establish ourselves in a man made environment that would be under our control and serve us better than nature ever had. Progress had been continuous since the Enlightenment and since it was based on human cleverness, rather than anything in the material world, there was no reason it couldn't continue forever. Or so we thought.

Looking back on this from 40 years later, it seems that we went astray somewhere. I've been researching this for some time now and it seems that things weren't quite as they seemed in 1969 and since then they have changed in a fundamental and most disturbing way.

If you had asked me in 1969 or perhaps a few years later, what had enabled the long run of progress that started in the Western World with the Renaissance and continued through the Enlightenment and on into the present, I would have said that it was a revolution in thinking. We began to question the muddled beliefs that came to us from the Classical era and the Church, to apply critical thinking and the scientific method to expand our understanding of the world and our mastery over it. And the idea that there might be any limits to this process of progress seemed bizarre. Challenges to overcome, but fundamental limits to progress, no.

My thinking on this has changed in the intervening 40 years. I have no doubt that a "revolution in thinking" was the spark that touched off the last few hundred years of progress. But the spark occurred in a unique environment which supported progress in a way that had never happened before in mankind's history and may never be able to happen again.

The first thing was the discovery of the new world, which provided wealth, room to grow and access to more natural resources. The second was the harnessing of fossil fuels to augment and eventually supplant the renewable energy sources that had driven the world up to that point. The modern world got off to a nice start on renewable energy, primarily indirect forms of solar energy -- muscle power (human and animal), biomass (mainly wood), wind and water power. The limits of these sorts were energy were beginning to be felt and progress might have fizzled out in the West, but for the growth in the use of coal and with the invention of the steam engine, a way to use coal not just for heating but also to turn heat into mechanical power to replace muscle power. In the early twentieth century oil, an even more convenient fuel than coal, came into prominence and began to power the engines of progress. We quickly built a civilization based on growth, driven by using ever increasing amounts of oil which, at the time, seemed like a practically infinite resource.

It seems counter intuitive to most people that energy is the engine which drives economic growth -- we have been told so often by economists that there are no limits to economic growth, that replacements can always be found for any resource that is running out. But this is largely wishful thinking -- many resources have no replacement that is economically viable.

During my lifetime our world has gone through a fundamental change from a growing, progressing civilization powered by what seemed like practically infinite supplies of energy to one where growth and progress are grinding to a halt, limited by the depletion of those vital energy resources. We have entered the "age of scarcity". The majority of the population is convinced the current "recession" is just a bump in the road and thing will soon be back to normal, but I say that they are the ones who have been fooled.

In the next few posts I'll talk about resource depletion, environmental degradation and economic contraction. And while I am not going to pull any punches about how serious these three intertwined problems are, I'll also talk about what I think can be done and the real meaning of hope in this context.

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