Cornucopians versus Doomsters: On Julian Simon’s Refutation of Global 2000 (and the Club of Rome)

man-chart-growth-copernius-viewRachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” was published in 1962. It, alone, of the important environmental best-sellers of that era, had a significant impact: it led to the banning of DDT (at least in the Western world) and major shifts in agricultural practice.

Paul Ehrlich, a noted American biologist, best known for his warnings about the consequences of population growth and limited resources,  was the author of a famous book “The Population Bomb” (1968), in which he claimed (as Malthus had claimed in 1798) that increasing population – demographic catastrophe — would inevitably outstrip food and resources, and that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s.

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A Dangerous Crack in Economic Theory:

Why growth is slow and world trade is not always win-win.

robert-ayresAs Larry Summers and many other economists have lamented (and even Donald Trump has said in several campaign speeches), it is true that the global recovery from the financial collapse of 2008 has been extraordinarily slow. Explanations vary widely. My own explanation up to now has focused on the shift from growth based on the exploitation of natural resources (especially oil and gas) to growth based on ICT technologies incubated in Silicon Valley but employing very few people. Another explanation centers on the working class reaction (in the US) to globalization and “free trade deals” favoring the export of manufacturing jobs to low wage countries.

A related explanation centers on the rise of the financial industry, along with its preference for moving money into the creation of asset bubbles rather than investment in small businesses in the “real” economy. A cousin of this explanation is that the money available for investment by the richest few is increasingly devoted to increasing the power of money in the political process. There is probably some truth in each of them.

The end of the era of increasing debt, with near zero interest rates is coming very soon. When it does, the cost of those deficits will explode, and the pressures for a major revolution in economics, capitalism and democracy, will also explode.

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On EROI, as a measure of what’s left in the barrel

RUA EROI

Source; Mason Inman. Scientific American. April. 2013. http://goo.gl/n57ZKG

This paper makes several points about the use of EROI as an indicator of future potential.

First, for comparability it is important to limit comparisons to specific end-use a products, such as gasoline for cars or electricity for the grid, or perhaps hydrogen for fuel cells. Comparisons between different end-uses are very dubious.

Second, it is important to avoid comparing EROIs for fossil fuels stored by geochemical processes in the Earth’s crust vs nuclear power (based on a single element, uranium) vs technologies based on energy directly or indirectly from the sun.

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Looking back at looking forward

Future vision ayres

This article, never published, was based on a talk given to the Swedish society for Future studies, in 2005. On re-reading it 11 years later, I have little to change or add, with one exception. In that same year, a book entitled The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil (a well-known denizen of Silicon Valley) was published. It’s thesis was that progress in computer technology had reached the point where artificial intelligence (AI) can be applied to its own development. Kurzweil suggests that this would lead to a hyper-exponential rate of progress resulting in a computer-based “super-intelligence capable of controlling human evolution or surpassing it.

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