“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)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Will ingenuity save us?

As is my wont, I entered a conversation on Joanne Nova's global warming skeptic blog site. The nature of my comments revolved around my contention that we won't be able to bring the underdeveloped world to the standard of living of the developed world since that would require increasing our primary energy consumption by about a factor of four, even without an increase in population.

The sentiment on that site is that progress is non-linear and unpredictable and that human ingenuity will result in breakthroughs that can make it possible for all seven or even nine billion people to live on Earth at western standards of living. People opine that gains in efficiency will enable more to be done with less - one person said that "a worker lying naked on a beach with an iPhone can be more productive than a whole office with several tons of gear in 1978." Really? Let's take a look.

I pulled statistics from an Energy Information Agency web site and Angus Maddison's web site and combined them into a spreadsheet. I was able to compile data from 1980 through 2006, surely a time when the efficiencies cited above would be in play. A couple of interesting charts emerged, the first shows per capita gdp as function of per capita energy use.
It looks an awful lot to me as if per capita gdp is purchased primarily with per capita primary energy use. Next, I looked at the ratio of per capita gdp to per capita energy use from 1980 to 2006.
Hmm. This is the the amount of gdp produced by a quantity of energy expended each year. The fact that it is increasing definitely shows a trend in favor of a more efficient use of energy to produce economic output but I see no indication of a breakaway trend; certainly nothing that will enable us to bring a western standard of living or anything close to the developing world at rates of primary energy use that are remotely feasible.

I'm hugely in favor of nuclear energy, solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, and other ways of extracting energy from the environment and I do believe that a standard of living that a Westerner such as myself could accept can be achieved for the world. Such things require focused effort, long-term planning, and massive investment.  I'd like to think the free market and ingenuity would find the solution, but I see little sign of it.

*Extensively edited to fix typos. I have GOT to be more careful about proofreading before hitting the PUBLISH POST button.

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