Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Astounding Lack of Foresight

It seems to me that almost all of the problems the world faces today could be explained by the average person's inability to conceive of the future as a real place. I'm not sure whether or not this is the case, but if it is, it would answer a lot of questions as to why people do things that are little better than cutting off their own legs because of an itch.

On August 24th Michael Lynch, bloodlessly described as an "energy consultant," took the idea of peak oil to task in an op-ed for the New York Times. I find it astounding for its broad, blunt assumptions and its sallow certainty that the state of the world as it is today reflects how it will be forever.

While Lynch may have a point in that oil deposits that are accessed relatively easily with modern technology were previously undevelopable, I believe his mistake is assuming that it will always be cheaper to tap fresh oil fields than derive energy from other sources. What I take the greatest issue with, though, is his conclusion - that given his claim that peak oil is bunk, "we can't... throw money away on harebrained renewable energy schemes" or invest in conservation, because, you know, people need cheap oil.

I take issue with it because, in a way, he's right. Too many people need cheap oil today because modern North American society was built with the assumption that it sat on the shore of an infinite ocean of petroleum. Our challenge isn't going to be limited to "harebrained renewable energy schemes" - if we want our civilization to be resilient, to stand up against possible future resource or energy shocks, we are going to have to fundamentally rebuild it.

Lynch's view on renewable energy, on the other hand, is enough to mark him out as an enemy of the future. Personally, I detect a techno-utopian tone to his words, an assumption that Good Old Human Ingenuity will easily, quickly, and cheaply solve any problems the maintenance of a petroleum-powered society creates, and that once if the oil runs out, that same ingenuity will allow us to switch our source of energy without interruption or pain.

Concepts like that are common in science fiction backgrounds that aren't thought out particularly well. In reality, I have little faith that such a trajectory would lead to anything but pain, suffering, and privation. While there are technologies that show promise in mitigating the environmental impact of industrial civilization through geoengineering, they remain expensive, for the most part untested, and may create further problems that are as yet unanticipated.

The worst thing we can do, when it comes to the future, is assume that it will be just like the present. That will only make sure we'll be unpleasantly surprised. Investing in new sources of power and establishing new measures to husband what resources we have is sensible. What people like Lynch advocate strikes me as pure irresponsibility.

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