“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Michael Medved, Dr. Albert Bartlett, and innumeracy

I was thinking about my post on how peoples philosophy affects their evaluation of factual data. I googled (an unfortunate example of "verbification," a language trend I loathe) "Michael Medved" "peak oil." I came upon a site called The Dead Hand. It seems to be the work of Dr. Robert Williscroft, who has penned a tome entitled The Chicken Little Agenda: Debunking "Experts'" Lies. The theme is that the end of the world as we know it is not approaching, no matter what "they" say. Dr. Williscroft has a flash audio of a Michael Medved segment that included himself and a representative of the group Seattle Peak Oil Awareness (Medved lives in Seattle). The segment occupied an hour of Medved's show.

This post is about the misconceptions about what can be accomplished by finding more oil, something Medved and Williscroft (and most of the callers to the show) think will inevitably happen and will solve our problems, at least for many decades to come. Unfortunately, even should such finds be forthcoming, they'll only postpone our reckoning by a small amount. As an aside, it's not as if most of the world is a vast unknown full of huge undiscovered oil fields and geologists have no clue about where to find them. In any case, Dr. Albert Bartlett has spent his career trying to educate lay people on the consequences of exponentially increasing consumption of a finite resource. I strongly urge everyone to look here for Dr. Bartlett's exposition.

I'd like to spend a little virtual ink to bring some of the salient points to my reader's attention. The world is currently using oil at the rate of about 80 million barrels per day. The spreadsheet from BP I used in my previous post on exponential growth gives enough data to show that the current doubling time for oil consumption is around 45 years. This means that in the next 45 years, we'll use as much oil as we have in all history up until today. Now, this is an exceptionally rosy estimate, if things go as they are going now. We have India, China, Indonesia, and many other developing nations growing quickly both in population and in per capita energy use. This has severe ramifications on the figure of 45 years, since that's based on data from 1982 through 2006.

Let's suppose an annual growth rate of 6% worldwide in demand encompasses the increasing populations and energy consumption rates of the so-called "developing world," and that that leads to an annual increase worldwide of 4%. Both of these are in line with current projections. Now we're looking at a doubling period of about 18 years, meaning that we'll use as much oil in the next 18 years as we've used up until today in all history. Further, it means that if geologists and oil companies double the oil reserves available, only another 18 years of oil use would be added.

Unfortunately, this underestimates the problem, since the second half of the oil is only extracted with much greater effort and with much greater cost, both in energy and monetary terms. I'm not predicting the end of the world as we know it, but Mr. Medved, et al, are whistling past the graveyard. I have no doubt that it's due to the cognitive dissonance between the philosophical framework by which he interprets facts and what is factual reality.

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