Monbiot: no peak oil, only warming

Anybody still entertaining the notion that peak oil would somehow help us kick the carbon habit should see this nice piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian.

At least since plublication of The Limits to Growth (LTG) in 1972, many have put natural resource limits and the damage caused by pollution in the same frame. In one way this makes sense because the Earth’s capacity to absorb pollution while still supporting its human population is a resource, just like oil or farmland. But mineral / food resources and the pollution-absorbing capacity of the Earth are different, because a shortage of the former brings a price response, while a shortage of the latter does not. A high oil price leads us to economize on oil – to conserve, to invent substitutes, and to invent technologies for extracting more oil more cheaply. Our carbon pollution is using up global common pool resources – the capacity of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb this stuff while still allowing us to produce the food and fuel we need – which are not priced. Without an institutional structure to create and enforce prices or emissions limits for the common pool resources, we can all ride free like this until judgement day.

I was persuaded by LTG when (I date myself here) it first came out. Most economists were not, because it modeled the depletion of resources without explicit reference to prices, and so seemed to ignore price-induced economizing. This critique is the basis of what has come to be called the “cornucopian” view. Cornucopians are fond of citing biologist Paul Ehrlich’s wager with economist Julian Simon over whether the oil crises of the 1970s were the start of a sustained rise in oil prices: cornucopian Simon won this bet. Yet if we look, not to Ehrlich’s characteristic ultra-pessimism, but to the LTG base-case preditions on both non-renwable resources and food production, we see that the latter is not so far off. Still, LTG diid under-predict growth in those areas, and Monbiot’s recantation on peak oil may be taken as acceptance that the divergence between the LTG projection and actual production will probably continue to grow.

But on unpriced resources – the great common pools that are the atmosphere and the oceans – LTG remains spot on. Find a copy of LTG and look, not at the base-case model, but the variants in which the resource constraints have been relaxed (e.g., p. 138, Figure 40, “World Model with ‘Unlimited’ Resources, Pollution Controls, and Increased Agricultural Productivity”). What you’ll see in model after model is the unpriced input, pollution, exploding off the chart, and causing collapse of the system. Overshoot and collapse. This is what LTG predicted in 1972 – without specific reference to global warming or ocean acidification, but simply with a general understanding that pollution beyond a certain level becomes toxic for the system – and it is of course what we’re headed towards now. It is good to see the authors of that study soldiering on.

p.s. I never did understand why peak oil advocates thought that a model which had worked for North American production in a particular period should be generalizable to a world scale: obviously, at least part of the reason North American production peaked – as once it seemed to have done – was that cheaper oil became available elsewhere; that mechanism doesn’t work on a world scale, because at that scale there’s no ‘elsewhere’.

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