free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 309. ACCELERATING PROGRESS

Monday, July 17, 2006


Many in the peak oil community feel disheartened with technology and consider progress to be slowing. No doubt there are various reasons for this perception, the most rational of which may be a general loss of confidence with science.

Progress may indeed appear to be slowing when one considers the amount of new innovations and advances made during the first half of the 20th century, only to see the second half of the 20th century 'merely' improving upon earlier advances instead of continuing to come up with all new innovations and breakthroughs. Greenneck summarises this position nicely in recent comments:
I recall when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon and back then, the future looked bright indeed.
Well, 35 years later we haven't got back to the Moon.
What went wrong?

This is why some people believe PO will lead to some kind of doom: they have lost confidence that science will solve it.
I suspect that if one were to travel back in time and grab someone from 1900 to take them on a quick trip of the 20th century, they would likely adopt a similar position on civilisation's progress as many of the PO pessimists do. The jump from 1900 to 1950 would be a remarkable leap for them. They might feel amazed at how much we have progressed, seeing inventions that were in their infancy in 1900 become highly advanced and wide spread. They would see the remarkable leaps forward made in almost every aspect of scientific endeavour, and they would see some of the greatest achievements in human history. And while they may at first feel disorientated with the level of progress made, they would soon fit in with society - after all, social structure and culture in 1950 really wasn't that different from 1900.

But then the jump from 1950 to 2000 would be a different story. Our friend from 1900 might think that civilisation had slacked off. The technology, while improved upon, is still basically the same. There have not been the giant leaps forward in theoretical science that the first half of the century enjoyed. A few industries have made impressive advances, most notably electronics and computing, but over all it would appear to our time travelling friend that progress has slowed considerably.

After a while though our friend would begin to perceive the true advances civilisation has made, however he would not easily understand them. Unlike the jump to 1950, the jump to 2000 would see a change in society he would be virtually incapable of comprehending. People of different races working together and treating each others as equals, women in leading roles in large corporations, he would see scantly clad men and women with strange high-tech sports gear zipping through the streets, people communicating with other people on opposite sides of the world using difficult to see technologies. He would see people assimilating astonishing amounts of information quickly and easily, people conducting business from all parts of the globe and at any time of the day or night. He would see communities of like-minded individuals finding each other from remote and widespread locations and clustering into virtual communities. He would see organisations and corporations employing individuals from all corners of the Earth and working together without ever leaving their homes. He would see people playing when he thinks they should be working, and yet they are never truly away from work as they often work when he thinks they should be resting.

The changes to society and culture are long and varied, but in short, our time traveller friend from 1900 would be overwhelmed by the pace and the capabilities of society circa 2000. In the year 2000 he may not perceive the same obvious degree of technological advancement made from 1900 to 1950, but he would be incapable of comprehending the progress made in the way people live their lives from 1950 to 2000. He would fail to understand the considerable advantages of the new globalized and digitised world community, and perhaps would think that the world has gone crazy.

Not unlike our PO doomer who craves the more quiet, simpler times.

The point of this little time travel exercise is to elaborate on human progress. To understand how civilisation is progressing, we must look at all of the aspects of civilisation, not merely a single part of the equation. For example, some people merely look to the continued use of a single resource as proof that civilisation is not progressing, as a doomer recently put it so elegantly in the comments:
If technology is advancing so fast why are the computers you jackasses typing on most likely powered by COAL!
It should be obvious that we can not merely measure the progress civilisation has made in the resources or materials it uses, nor the inventions patented per capita, as some people foolishly do, nor can we even measure progress purely as a technological aspect.

To consider human progress, I could easily point to the plethora of technological advances made recently. I could comment on the fact that civilisation appears to be on the verge of a new technological age based on all new materials - just as iron and bronze revolutionised the world with new unforseen technologies thanks to the widespread adoption of new superior materials (bringing about the iron age and bronze age), so too will our new found capabilities of structuring carbon at the molecular level (commonly known as nano-technology) herald in a new technological age of unforseen advances with the widespread use of superior materials. We may only just be entering what may come to be called 'the carbon age', based on molecularly perfect carbon materials that offer massive increases in strength, reduction in weight, transference of heat and ultimately massive increases in efficiency and reductions in waste, and many other possibilities not yet perceived.

However to elaborate on the considerable progress civilisation has made, we must not solely focus on the technological. Social and cultural advances are also of vital importance, and are intimately bound with our technological advances. And in many ways, the advances that we have made socially and culturally are far more important then the technological advances we make.

Consider Wendell Phillips famous words:
"What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind."
It's unquestionable that this simple technological advance, first developed over 500 years ago, had a tremendous impact on society and culture. Now consider the modern evolution of the printing press and what it has done for the mind. The internet is arguably one of the most important social revolutions in history, and is what has allowed such wide-spread awareness of peak oil issues to be assimilated by society in the first place. If it were not for this technological and social advance many people would likely still be unaware of the peak oil issues. It may be powered by an old power source, but it is still a deeply impacting advent radically altering civilisation as we know it.

While technological change over the past 50 years may be difficult for some people to perceive, especially given the considerable about of improvement over innovation, the radical social and cultural change we have experienced should be obvious. Society has radically transformed and continues to do so, and this effect must not be so easily dismissed. Civilisation today is far more adaptable and capable then ever before, and assuming that we are incapable of dealing with complex issues such as peak oil simply because we still use antiquated power sources is imprudent. We may have considerable challenges ahead with transitioning to new ways of life, but transitioning to new ways of life is one thing that we have become ever more skilled at doing.

Don't dismiss our adaptability; it's what allowed a once weak, defenceless and insignificant little species to conquer the world, and we've been accelerating our adaptability capabilities ever since.

Peak oil; we will adapt.
-- by Omnitir


At Monday, July 17, 2006 at 11:58:00 AM PDT, Blogger BlackSun said...

Basically, the misunderstandings boil down to these: Ignorance of the law of accelerating returns, paradigm shifts, and asymmetrical development.

Computers will run on coal until we figure out something else to run them on. But that doesn't mean they still don't do great things, and continue to get twice as powerful every year. It's a totally irrelevant objection. That's like saying a fighter jet or missile is ineffective because it runs on jet fuel. But the wise still respect the power of the technology and get out of the way.

It's becoming harder and harder for doomers to keep their blinders on, though.

Like Kurzweil, I see a future where at some point, technologically unenhanced humans will be unable to participate in society on a meaningful level. They won't be able to comprehend what will turn into a hyper-information-based interior culture. It will be a world of minds. Today's doomer mentality is the beginning of the segmentation of society into two groups: the progressives, and what I would call "technological refuseniks."

At Tuesday, July 18, 2006 at 4:59:00 PM PDT, Blogger Mel. Hauser said...

Good points, Green. People seem to constantly forget that as great as the Great Depression was, it didn't lead to widespread genocide and roaming militias of neo-con cocksuckers looking to rape and pillage every acre of viable real estate in their eyeline. All that crap is just the wishful thinking of a society wracked in schadenfreud, and the ironic hopes that the have-nots will become the inheritors of the new world by some kind of doomsday default.

It's going to happen, and only the gutless and irrational will have anything to fear.

And seriously, could we quell the viral effect of the name-calling shit? I'm no saint when it comes to restraint, but HA's inability to convey himself in remotely intelligent terms seems to be bringing everyone down to the noise level of a Manchester United game.

I like this place because it ISN'T PO. It'd be nice if it could maintain that.

At Wednesday, July 19, 2006 at 1:12:00 PM PDT, Blogger bc said...

The important question regarding technology is "can we always advance technology in the direction we want?" The answer to that is "No". Sure, life has changed a lot, but a lot of these things are unexpected or unpredicted benefits. For example, the laser was "supposed" to enable the long dreamt science fiction beam weapon. In fact, such weapons are quite impractical, but who would have guessed that lasers would enable high speed telecoms.

In some cases we have discovered that what we want is impossible. We would like to accurately forecast the weather (and climate), but due its chaotic nature it is not enough to simply have a powerful computer.

There are several areas that have not made the hoped for progress, despite lots of hard work. Eg. weather forecasting, supersonic transport, nuclear fusion, AI, routine space travel. These may come to fruition one day, but we may discover that there are some things that are not possible or not practical.

I suspect nanotechnology is one such area that will fall far short of expectations. Sure we will get some better materials. But placing individual atoms, however clever, will never be a practical application for real world manufacturing.

At Thursday, July 20, 2006 at 9:03:00 AM PDT, Blogger pumpysworld said...

The problem isn't the speed of technological progress but the economic circumstances that are not available to allow for such.

For example, Saab has just come out with a 100% ethanol car. That's wonderful, but where will we get the ethanol to run it? And will we need even more ethanol to get more ethanol, let alone manufacture such cars? The same goes for geothermal energy, solar power, and so on.

Next, is technology and wealth distributed evenly, if not proportionately, worldwide? Will industrialized countries sacrifice to provide much-needed aid to poorer ones to make such technology available? Never mind wondering whether large corporations that eventually patent such technology will offer the same to poor countries at low rates or even free.

There are more problems: lag time for making alternative forms of energy available, the willingness of industrialized countries to cooperate (are they?), economic problems caused by severe adjustments in industries, etc.

This reminds me of the movie 2001. It's now 2006 and we don't seem to have that world. It seems that much of technological progress benefits only a minority, with most barely able to afford such. Consider, for example,

At Sunday, July 23, 2006 at 3:41:00 PM PDT, Blogger Mel. Hauser said...

Groan. Someone get the firehose.

At Tuesday, July 25, 2006 at 9:02:00 PM PDT, Blogger Teresita said...

bc said:

I suspect nanotechnology is one such area that will fall far short of expectations. Sure we will get some better materials. But placing individual atoms, however clever, will never be a practical application for real world manufacturing.

All the pie-in-the-sky dreams about nanotechnology rely on a future breakthrough of getting that gray goo to replicate itself, which is understood in broad principles but there's undoubtedly endless little obstacles on the molecular scale when putting it into practice, little hassles that life has already run into and solved.

So in the end, the nano-engineers are probably going throw their hands up into the air and concede the whole industry to the bio-engineers which uses preexisting "hardware" and just changes the molecular software.

At Thursday, July 27, 2006 at 10:24:00 PM PDT, Blogger Mel. Hauser said...

Let's go on a roadtrip, Freak. I've always wanted to visit Australia.

We can go forth and enjoy the vistas and pretend like the world hasn't gone FUCKING CRAZY, take advantage of the planet in its current state and maybe form a mariachi group.

Translation: I'm sick as a goddamned mutt of all this shit, and am going to return to my meager existence, enjoying every cigarette and sunrise like the apocalypse isn't nigh. Been real!

At Thursday, August 10, 2006 at 9:22:00 PM PDT, Blogger popmonkey said...

i just wanted to say:

1. enough of the flame wars already (although this one looks doused since jev has taken himself out)

2. i find it interesting how now, and in the past, men in or past middle age are the ones predicting doom of some sort. i think a lot of it is a projection of our own incoming oblivion (i've recently reached that delusional half-way point myself, delusional, because i hardly consider it halfway when you think about what life after 65 becomes for most folks)... is it maybe that humanity has reached its own middle age and has only aches and pains to look forward to before an unremarkable death? or just that people just plain tend to get gloomier as they grow older...

3. this is probably the funniest thing i've read all week:

" is worthless and you will never see adulthood in the coming apocalypse. whos up for ice cream?"

thanks sendak ;)

4. dr. doom, a really great post; really, JD should turn it into #310 and leave that up. much better than the current wishy washy progress article.


At Tuesday, August 29, 2006 at 10:15:00 PM PDT, Blogger Oil Shock said...

peak already happened in December 2005. All you have to do is to look at the production numbers according to EIA.

Oil Shock

At Monday, September 4, 2006 at 6:57:00 PM PDT, Blogger Gary said...

Is this blog done? No new posts in awhile.

At Saturday, September 23, 2006 at 3:43:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry JD, you lose. "The End of Suburbia" peak oil thesis is real. My government says so.

The Australian Federal Senate committee into peak oil has confirmed everything peakniks (not Doomers) have been saying all along.

1. The era of cheap oil is over

Oil production is about to 'peak' and then move permanently into decline.
"Australia should be planning for it now" 2:17

2. There is no "silver bullet"

"There is no universal panacea, no one perfect solution". 4:4

3. The effect on the world economy is going to be profound

"The Committee notes that there are credible concerns that markets will not respond in time to provide a smooth transition to a post peak oil world without government action. Given the uncertainty about much of the information on world oil supplies and the geopolitical instability of the oil bearing regions, there may be a risk that markets will underinvest in oil and energy technologies, resulting in economic and social hardship as supply falls below demand. 3:20

4. We need energy efficient cities not energy efficient cars — and this is going to be difficult!

"Increasing walking, cycling and public transport use in cities is a worthwhile goal for a number of reasons, regardless of predictions about the oil future. If there is a long term rise in the price of oil, it will be all the more necessary." 5.21

"However we should not underestimate the difficulties involved. Vast areas of post World War 2 suburbia have been designed on the assumption that most travel would be by car, and with the aim of making this easier. The effect has been to make travel in any other way more difficult, as activity centres disperse to sites distant from the public transport network, and the environment for pedestrians and cyclists is degraded by traffic. In these areas existing public transport routes do not serve many travel needs, and existing services mostly function as welfare for people without cars, with a very low proportion of total trips (less than 5%)." 5.22

At Monday, November 13, 2006 at 6:39:00 PM PST, Blogger Iconoclast421 said...

What a great blog. I am always amazed by the incredible work that dumbed down idiots can do. We'll never run out of oil! That's right, we'll just ignore the fact that country after country goes past its peak and enters irreversible decline.

Because some places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela still have plenty of oil, that means we can ignore the fact that the US, virtually all of Europe, and most of the pro west states around the world have already peaked.

I guess there will always be people shoveling their crap onto others, even when oil is $200 a barrel and half the middle class is annihilated. Oh yes, technology and the market will solve all our problems. Such ignorance is worthy of a spot on Fox News. Never mind the fact that technology, and normal progress have been hampered for decades by a corrupt criminal cartel. Just go on believing their lies. Drink the black gold til you're drunk on it. Then when it costs too much to buy, just go kill some towel head and get some more. Kill whoever you have to. Overthrow whatever government you have to. Lie to whoever you have to. Just as long as you never have to think or act responsibly. Delusional, pathetic retards.

At Sunday, February 11, 2007 at 7:12:00 AM PST, Blogger Eric said...

A few years ago, it was difficult to find synthetic motor oils, and equally difficult to

find someone who admitted to using them. Nowadays, however, you can find synthetic motor

oils on the shelves of Wal-Mart, and other retailers, and the number of people turning to

synthetic motor oils, particularly in light of the recent events affecting fuel prices, has

risen greatly.

So why do people use synthetic motor oils rather than sticking with the old petroleum based

stand-bys which are admittedly cheaper?

1. Let's start with the cost per quart issue. Synthetic motor oils ARE more expensive at

purchase. However, these oils last longer, requiring fewer oil changes. As a synthetic motor

oil outlasts several changes of petroleum based lubricants, the ultimate out-of-pocket cost

of the lubricant is less. This cost savings becomes even greater if you have someone else

change your oil for you rather than doing it yourself!

At Tuesday, April 10, 2007 at 7:22:00 AM PDT, Blogger K Grimsley H said...

Although civilization is more than capable of making changes and adapting to them, the crisis that the peak oil dilemma would create are unprecedented in history. We have always been making technological advances in society and incorporating them into our lives. We are accustomed to this upward-bound movement of technology. What we are NOT accustomed to is a downward movement in technology- a technological regression. It becomes awfully hard for people to give up luxuries when they've been available to them for such a long period of time. In that sense the peak oil crisis would challenge our abilities to adapt. Life may very well become similar to the late 1800s, which is an optimistic hope, for unlike in the 1800s where everyone knows how to grow their own crops and harvest their own livestock, we are lucky to be able to mend a hole in our jeans. Think of all the people that do not have the slightest clue how to live without oil, myself included of course. Indeed, PO sounds like a radical premonition but we need to realize that oil is not always going to be available, and when it's not...then what? Yes, other forms of energy are being explored, but even if these ideas were perfected, none could compare to the versatile energy and power source- oil. Personally, I very much enjoy living with current technological amenities, however, I think it is wise for people to prepare for such a crisis by learning how to do the sort of things that your survival may be dependent on someday. I'm not trying to convince anyone about peak oil, but I think we all need to be a little more open-minded to potential threats as we are merely people and it is when we are in a crisis our impermeability is truly felt.

At Saturday, April 14, 2007 at 11:10:00 PM PDT, Blogger said...

Why so quiet now?

Peak oil is here.

What a loser. Because of losers like you, we all lost precious time & energy that could have been used to deal with the problem.

Because of people like you, we all lose.

At Sunday, June 10, 2007 at 7:54:00 AM PDT, Blogger Felix said...

Whoa! So true, we have made "great" social advances, although about half the population believes we are socially going backwards and they just pretend to be happy with the current hip liberal way of life. But who cares what they think? They are only half the population and have no place in our democratic system were only the good half has a right to express.

Sure my friend, all our new found friendship (i have a bunch of indians, africans and ecuatorians on my room right now, playing a little poker) will power our cars and electric grid because if you have love, the sky is the limit.

High five!!

At Monday, July 16, 2007 at 9:43:00 PM PDT, Blogger Insolent Prick said...

Great site, JD. I came across it after I wrote a piece on Peak Oil here in New Zealand. It would have done wonders for my arguments if I had found it before I posted! ;)

Just a suggestion: have you thought of doing a post with a directory of all the key Peak Oil merchants, and their stunningly inaccurate predictions of doomsday? I've managed to pick them up in individual posts, but a single post with what they all said then, as opposed to what they're saying now, would be useful.


At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 5:59:00 PM PDT, Blogger cole said...

I've been perusing the blog here, and I'd like to offer a bit of constructive criticism. JD has said he acknowledges that someday oil production from the ground will decrease, so on that point there's some agreement. JD, what would be great is if you could provide a roadmap of sorts to show to how mankind will get through that inevitable peak. I think you'd do a real service to everyone, on both sides of the Peak Oil debate, by mapping the timeline and accompanying details of how mankind will migrate to non-fossil energy sources. I'd let people poke holes in the roadmap, and refine it, over and over again. My gut tells me we'll be affected by Peak Oil, the only question is whether it's bearable pain, or serious depression. Working out how we can make the transition to the other side of fossil fuels would be enormously helpful to see.

At Friday, August 17, 2007 at 3:29:00 PM PDT, Blogger Marie Dubuque said...

Agree that we will survive peak oil, but there will probably be a very unpleasant wakeup period very soon. Animals have always consumed without concern.

At Thursday, December 20, 2007 at 11:11:00 AM PST, Blogger KiltedGreen said...

There seems to be an assumption on this thread that 'progress' and 'improved technology' are synonymous so of course it's easy to conclude that humanity has 'progressed' if all that you need to do is point to the numbers of computers, cars, TVs, toasters, rice-makers, etc. that people have bought.

However, what if I were to ask; "Has our state of mind progressed? Our creativity? Our art? Our sense of peace? Our feeling of community? Our personal development? Our stress levels? Our well-being? Our family bonds?" and so on. Hmmm. They're not so easy to assess as items pouring off production lines and therefore get left out of the equation ... Surveys frequently show that the "human happiness == material goods possessed" equation doesn't add up, otherwise by now, compared to 200 years ago most people in the West today would be so ecstatic they would probably need tranquillising just to get through the day!

A second point I wanted to make is that James Kunstler (who I don't see eye to eye with all the time for sure) said on his site recently that one thing he finds his audiences, especially younger ones, tend to do is assume is that technology can be substituted for energy; that they are interchangeable. As he points out ... they are certainly not. The implication of what's said by many on this thread seems to be that our energy decline can be addressed by applying more technology. If you stop to think, for just one moment, you'll realise that the reason that we have an imminent energy crisis is BECAUSE of our current technology. That combined with the sheer number of people.


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