Friday, October 05, 2007

Why Human Ingenuity May Not Be Enough this Time

A hopeful public, including leaders in business and politics, views the growing problem of oil depletion as a very straightforward engineering problem of exactly the kind that technology and human ingenuity have so successfully solved before, and it therefore seems reasonable to assume that the combination will prevail again. There are, however, several defects in this belief.

One is that we tend to confuse and conflate energy and technology. They go hand in hand but they are not the same thing. The oil endowment was an extraordinary and singular occurrence of geology, allowing us to use the stored energy of millions of years of sunlight. Once it's gone it will be gone forever. Technology is just the hardware and programming for running that fuel, but not the fuel itself. And technology is still bound to the laws of physics and thermodynamics, which both say you can't get something for nothing, and there is no such thing as perpetual motion. All of this is to say that much of our existing technology simply won't work without petroleum, and without the petroleum "platform" to work off, we may lack the tools to get beyond the current level of fossil-fuel based technology. Another way of putting it is that we have an extremely narrow window of opportunity to make that happen.

--From pp. 101-2 of James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

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