Worstall @ the Weekend Keeping a technologically based civilisation on the road isn't all that easy. There must be stuff available to make stuff from and there's got to be energy to do the transforming of that stuff. If we posited something like The Culture by Iain M. Banks, where there's a universe of stuff to transform and an entire universe's worth of energy, then there's no real limit to either how rich that society can get nor how long it can last.
Similarly, if all the stuff runs out in a few years' time, as does all the energy, then humanity will go back to being a couple of million hunter gatherers pretty sharpish.
What we'd really like to know, of course, is which version of the universe do we inhabit: one where Paul Ehrlich is right and we all starved in the 1980s, or one in which, around 2300 or so, the Jetsons finally get their flying cars?
Fortunately we've had people trying to work this out for us. One example was the Club of Rome which got together to create a report called Limits to Growth.
This was very much more optimistic than Paul Ehrlich was: this report said that we should all start dying around about now as all the stuff ran out. It's not, as we can see around us, happening quite yet. Yes, people are dying in Ukraine and Syria and so on, but that's from an excess of high explosive being sent their way, not from a lack of it. Never mind, though, the Guardian tells us it's about to start happening real soon now:
Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse. Four decades after the book was published, Limit to Growth’s forecasts have been vindicated by new Australian research. Expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon
Well, yes, real soon now, no doubt. And the guy who has checked this research must be believed: Graham Turner is a physicist who used to work for CSIRO in Oz. And CSIRO are just great guys: they actually cited me in one of their academic papers so they must be. So, obviously, we should all just curl up and die right now, right?
Er, we're not all going to die. Sorry about that
Fortunately for you I've actually gone and read Turner's various replays of the original paper and I can tell you about the policy-based evidence-making tricks he has used to reach this conclusion. I'm even willing to share those two tricks with you.
It's pretty simple really: he's assumed at the start that we're about to run out of stuff to transform and also that we're just about to run out of the energy necessary to do any transformation. After that, why bother writing anything else?
Back to that couple of million hunter-gatherers and baggsie me first go with the village virgins. Of course, that sort of thing doesn't get you respectful pieces in The Guardian insisting that you're right. It's necessary to slightly dress up those first two assumptions, making them appear at least vaguely believable, otherwise not even George Monbiot is going to be credulous enough to believe you.
The big reveal
So, here's what Turner's two little tricks are. The first is one I've alluded to before around here, and it's one that actually comes from Limits to Growth itself. Let's assume, just because we want to assume such a thing, that there are not many more minerals out there for us to mine. They're not as bad as some, who look only at the listings for mineral reserves and then shouting that once they're gone, we're dead.
They are aware that mineral reserves are, colloquially, best described as the working stocks of mines already in production. Those generally last for 30-50 years at any one time and beyond that availability there's then other mineral resources. There are troves of stuff we've not yet discovered, as well as stuff that we know about but for which we've just not done the work to prove (in the sense of “test our beliefs to near destruction”) that it's there and recoverable.
There's a good logical reason for why we've not done this proving, too. What we actually have to prove in order to move a mountain from a resource to a reserve is that we can extract our target metal (or mineral), using current technology, at current prices, and still make a profit. This is expensive. I know of one mine in Madagascar that is actually producing industrial quantities of a couple of metals right now. They've also spent $4bn to get to this stage: but the working stock of the mine, the ore they know is there, is still not a mineral reserve. They're using a new processing technique and they've some teething problems so they're not yet making a profit. So, no profit, no reserve.
Obviously, if you're not going to start digging something up until 30 to 50 years has passed, as there's plenty left in other mines until then, you're not going to spend billions of $ now and then wait, are you? So people don't, they just leave stuff as resources until they're getting close to actually wanting to dig them up. Note an interesting implication of this: every generation exhausts its mineral reserves. What we've got as reserves today will be gone by the time (if I survive that long) that I could potentially be a grandfather. It's not a problem because we just prepare a few more resources into reserves: but it's still true that every generation uses up its mineral reserves.
Oh look, they don't have a clue what they're talking about
As I say, the Limits to Growth people are better than the average environmentalist on this point. They get that resources exist and that they can be converted. But then they throw their curveball: they assume, and they're very clear about this assumption, that resources are only 10x reserves. Which is absurd, there's no connection at all between the volumes of the two definitions. Potash and phosphorus have resources of 1,500 and 7,500 years respectively and reserves of maybe 50 years each. We have neither gallium nor germanium reserves or resources and yet we've got tens of thousands of years of available supply. It's that assumption that resources are some multiple of current reserves that is the glaring error.
Of course the mathematically minded can see what happens next. If resources are only 10x reserves, reserves tend to be 30 years' supply, then obviously in 300 years (maybe less if demand grows) we're back to being hunter gatherers again. And that really is it. That's the whole trick, pure and simple, that is used to tell us that we're going to run out of stuff.
It's bollocks – it's obviously bollocks – but unfortunately it's influential bollocks.
I said there was a second trick he used as well. And this one should piss off any number of Greenies: so much so that I'm surprised that they're giving him the time of day in the manner that they are. Here it is:
To account for substitutability between resources a simple and robust position has been taken. First, it is assumed here that metals and minerals will not substitute for bulk energy resources such as fossil fuels.
Now to an economist, everything is substitutable. You might not like what the substitute is, but there always is one. Starvation is a substitute for food, playing with oneself is a substitute for a willing and able sex partner and, yes, we do generally think that minerals and metals are substitutes for fossil fuel energy.
And just about every green on the planet thinks that that latter is a good and useful substitute too. What the hell is a solar cell if it's not substituting silicon and some dopants for fossil fuels? Windmills use aluminium, concrete, steel and rare earths in place of coal, oil or natural gas. Even if you're not sure that these are going to be particularly good substitutes, uranium works damn well in place of coal and the like. These are all substituting minerals and metals for fossil fuels.
So Turner's second trick is simply to declare, at the outset, that no possible set or subset of non-fossil fuel energy systems will ever work. Therefore there'll be just two million of us back in the jungles in a few more years, while the rest of the seven billion humans on the planet will just have to starve.
Top notch bullshitting = profit
And that, my dear El Reg commentards, is how you scare the bejasus out of your society by writing a report. Make sure that your starting assumptions will lead inevitably to your pre-determined conclusion. Make that conclusion blood-curdling enough that you'll be invited to write for all the newspapers and appear on the TV shows. Count money.
We all know that we cannot have a technologically advanced society without stuff to transform and energy to power the transforming. What we'd like to know is whether there's enough stuff around and enough energy that can be captured/released to do that. We're not going to get our answer from a study that assumes, at the start, erroneously, that there's not going to be any stuff and there also won't be any energy. Making those assumptions means, of course, that there's no other possible result from this dreck other than that, soon enough, we all die.
This supposed vindication of Limits to Growth is simply bollocks. Yes, whatever The Guardian says about it. ®