Thursday, December 10, 2009

We are not reindeer eating moss

And so we come to the end of another year past peak oil, and the wild predictions of chaos and war of the doomers have not yet come to pass. Things both good and bad happen slowly in the world, because humans are complicated beings. People are often upset and confused by this complexity, and so they have recourse to all sorts of crazy things, like graphs. For example, if you discuss resources or population, someone might post up this graph, and conclude,

"I'm betting that in the case of humanity we are probably headed towards a major crash."

The guy is far from unique. Sites such as life after the oil crash, dieoff, James Kunstler, and so on are legion. These are guys who provide us great entertainment by predicting doom and giving us a date for it, a date we can then watch pass with nothing world-shattering happening. For example, permanent blackouts in the US by 2007.

They get enthusiastic responses from their graphs and simple statements of doom. "This is a graph we should not forget," replies an editor of Olduvai Gorge. Basically, as soon as oil runs short everything turns to shit.

So is the reindeer graph one we should not forget? On the contrary, this is a graph that reinforces why we should beware graphs: they may tell the truth, but they do not tell the whole truth, and their truths are not always universal.

The graph of reindeer population is an example of one creature with no natural predators around, and one food source. And that creature was stupid, in that it was unable to find new food sources, and unable to control its reproduction or level of consumption. It's just an animal.

Had there been other things available for the reindeer to eat, it would have been a different graph. Had the animal been intelligent and been able to get to new resources or change its behaviour, it would have been a different graph.

Humans have multiple "foods" - actual food, water, electricity from various sources, fuel for transport, and so on. We can also change our behaviour.

All these things can act to mitigate any downslope, and make it less steep.

These stories of isolated islands of reindeer and their moss or Easter Islanders and their giant stone heads and forests are attractive to us, because they're so simple. But in the wider world things are more complicated. The greater complexity means things don't go as neatly as graphs tell us.

Since oil dropped down from $150 and the financial crisis hit, I've noticed a real despondency among TheOilDrum readers and many others on peak oil and similar sites. A disappointment that oil didn't keep going up and up and various systems collapse as long-predicted. The world isn't operating according to simple formulae. 

I understand this disappointment, because I made dramatic predictions, too, and as I describe here, things didn't turn out so dramatic and simple after all.

This is a problem that doomers, from Kunstler way back to Christian evangelist groups in the 1800s, have always faced: if you give a date for doom, what do you do when the date passes and nothing happens? If you're Kunstler or the Christians you just ignore it and carry on with new doom dates. More intelligent and mature people have to adjust their thinking.

The world's more complicated than a bunch of deer munching on moss.

The mature thing to do is to accept that a simple up-and-down graph doesn't tell us much about the world. It tells us something, but not everything.

So if not doom, then what can we expect from peak oil? I've previously written that we can expect a reduction in the range of our lives, with our largest cities being unviable, and that the Third World will never get their place on the sunny beach of living a wasteful lifestyle.

Thus, a lot of drama and suffering and change, but not much doom. We won't see tens or hundreds of millions of people die in months, or large nations fall, nor is it time to retreat to our bunkers in the woods with our assault rifles and spam. There are simple steps you and I can take to reduce how much of the world's resources we pollute and steal, steps which mean that if a crisis does come it won't be so painful for us, and steps which will in any case improve our individual quality of life.  

We are not reindeer eating moss.