Monday, December 12, 2005

Resource Insights: Energy: Fairy Dust for Techno-optimists

Kurt Cobb raises an interesting question in Energy: Fairy Dust for Techno-optimists. He begins by alluding to Peter Pan and the pixie dust used to cause the children in the story to levitate allowing them to fly to neverland.

For decades there have been wondrous visions of what technology can do for us. He names a few ideas so we can remember them. The common thing that technological marvels require is energy.

Let me ask you -- what turned our society from a rural agrarian mode into a modern industrial wonder? Was it the development of technology?

You betcha it was the development of technology. Beginning with automobiles, trucks, trains, etc we had the transportation power to move products and materials around much more quickly and efficiently than ever before. A couple weeks ago I was in India for my second trip, and while Bangalore is in many ways a very modern city there are many ox or horse or hand drawn carts on the streets and it really strikes me how innefficient they are. At least compared to modern trucks and cars.

And it's technology that made the difference. Just as communications technology makes a difference in another way. If you want to distribute a newspaper nationwide (e.g. USA Today) there are two choices. One is to print the newspaper in a central place, and then ship it by overnight air express to the nationwide destinations. The second is to transmit the data nationwide, and have it printed and distributed locally. The second is more efficient and a society that isn't technologically advanced is incapable of doing either.

But, what allowed for the development of technology?

Let me suggest that it's energy resources, in the form of coal and oil.

Leonardo DaVinci is proof positive that intelligent and creative minds existed in other era's. What would have happened if DaVinci had available to him the energy resources we take for granted today? If he were reincarnated to todays era, just which of the tech wonder companies would have have founded?

Without the energy resources we will not be able to sustain the technological marvels we take for granted.

Remember if you will Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The hero, Max, finds a group of children in the desert and they have a few doodads of technology hanging around. One of them is a vinyl record they have attached to a medicine man style staff. At some point they find a record player and Max takes the vinyl record, puts it on the record player, and shows them what it's really for. Those children didn't have the energy resource to drive a record player, hence had no ability to play the record they had.

Kurt Cobb, however, suggests that providing energy to the level to which we've become accustomed is insolvable. We have facing us the Peak Oil problem, namely, that the worlds oil production system has maxed out and there's not more oil to find. It's oil which is the prime source of the energy we use, and when the oil supply really peaks we're going to be heading towards the Mad Max scenario. He runs through the alternatives being bandied about and points out none of them are terribly sustainable.

Let's home he's just being defeatist.


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