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Maybe his time as editor of Skeptic magazine has taught Michael Shermer how to spin a yarn of complete and utter nonsense. That's the only explanation I can come up with for the Panglossian drivel he published in the Los Angeles Times last weekend.

If you walk into a Yanomamö village in Brazil today — a good analogue for how our ancestors lived — and count up the stone tools, baskets, arrow points, arrow shafts, bows, hammocks, clay pots, assorted other tools, various medicinal remedies, pets, food products, articles of clothing and the like, you would end up with a figure of about 300. Before 10,000 years ago, this was the approximate material wealth of each village on the planet. By contrast, if you walk into the Manhattan village today and count up all the different products available at retail stores and restaurants, factory outlets and superstores, you would end up with an estimated figure of about 10 billion (based on the UPC bar code system count). Economic anthropologists estimate the average annual income of hunter-gatherers to have been about $100 per person and the average annual income of big-city dwellers to be about $40,000 per person.
If ever there was a great leap forward, this is evidence of it.

You'd think that a self-proclaimed skeptic might stop to question the misguided belief that the amount of stuff you own determines your level of happiness and wellbeing. Apparently not. Never mind that studies have shown that—once people pass a certain level of per capita GDP—their levels of happiness cease to rise. A great (not to be mistaken with "enjoyable") exploration of this is The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 by Avner Offer, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University.

Admittedly, "happiness economics" is a controversial topic. First, it's difficult to quantify happiness. Second, questioning the prevailing dogma of economic growth these days is a bit like saying that Tiger Woods is your role model of a family man. People will look at you funny.

And Shermer makes some valid points. Overall quality of life globally has improved: we’ve eradicated horrific diseases like small pox; we’ve greatly extended life spans in much of the world; for many of us, we have more free time and, well, freedom, than our ancestors. The list goes on. But these benefits haven’t extended equally to all of the world’s 6.8 billion people. In fact, no matter how Shermer tries to cherry pick economic statistics, the truth is that far too many people live in abject poverty. There is a stark and growing gap between the world’s rich and poor, exemplified in the fact that over one billion people worldwide are under-nourished while another billion are overweight. Which brings me to another blindingly obvious hole in Shermer’s thinking…

Sure, the future looks gloomy if you focus on environmental problems or world hunger, but in many ways, things have never been better for us.

Last I checked, we live on a finite planet with finite resources. No matter how dogmatically economists and politicians try to convince us that we can keep growing our economies in perpetuity, exponential growth in human population, resource consumption, and economic activity is going to hit against some real, physical limits. In fact, it already has. Sorry to tell you this Michael, but mother nature has a way of getting our attention, whether we want to focus on her or not.

All that said, I’m equally wary of those who tend to vilify or cheer on the collapse of industrial society. There is a tendency in some circles to perpetuate the polar opposite of Shermer's "best of all possible worlds," an equally Panglossian adoration of indigenous cultures. While it's true that there is a great deal we can and should learn from more agrarian societies, I find it worrisome whenever people idealize past eras or contemporary indigenous groups like the Yanomamö Shermer referenced above. I think it's important to make a distinction between wanting to preserve indigenous cultures, who face unrelenting pressure to assimilate into modern society, and wanting to be like them. The truth is that the "best of all possible worlds" is a messy, conflicted, inconsistent, and, frankly, confusing place to live—a place between and outside of the simplistic views of Shermer and countless others. This world is called planet Earth (or maybe I should say planet Eaarth) and it's the only one we've got, so we might as well live on it.

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Reader Comments



From: Timo, May 31, 2010 08:44 AM

I'm sorry, Mr. Miller, but I'm afraid Shermer wasn't referring to "happiness economics," nor was he equating material or economic wealth with being content. I find your criticism of his article quite curious. It was placed in the context of an understanding that there are many problems we face, but that we have also made considerable progress as a species. Did you read his opening paragraph or was your bias against him still pulsing through your brain so loudly that you couldn't make out these simple words: It is fashionable among environmentalists today to paint a gloomy portrait of our future. Although there are many environmental issues yet to be solved, too many species endangered, more pollution than most of us would like and far too many people still going hungry each day, let's not forget how far we've come, starting 10,000 years ago."?


From: Dennis Falgout, May 17, 2010 10:53 AM


I, too have enjoyed the exchange of ideas, and have appreciated the civil tone of each of your responses.

I disagree that there are thousands of scientists who have endorsed the IPCC position that human-released carbon dioxide has contributed the majority of the temperature increase during the past 140 or so years. The IPCC scientific membership consists of approximately 2,500 scientists, split approximately evenly among 5 Work Groups. Only one work group has responsibility for discerning the causes of the warming. Those 500 or so appear to be split about 60:40 in support of the IPCC position. The claim that there is a consensus among scientists on this subject is a media-created myth.

Your question about my financial interest in the outcome of this debate is symptomatic of a second myth making the rounds of the blogosphere and fervently promoted by reporters. That is the myth of great financial reward lavished on skeptics (I prefer the term heretic) by greedy and evil big energy companies. If you know of anyone who is willing to pay me for participating in these debates, please let me know. I may as well get paid for doing what I enjoy. I am a retired Ph.D. environmental engineer, whose career was over 50% working under contract to the USEPA. I have seen the sausages made and know that the process is not pretty.

Farewell for now, perhaps our paths will cross again.


From: OzarkPearl, May 14, 2010 07:18 PM

Loverly 2

Mr. Falgout:

I hesitate to say that I am enjoying this exchange; it has been interesting to talk with someone who sees the world in a totally different way than I do, but who is polite about it. A rarity at the moment.

As I have noted each time I have written you, we weigh the data differently, we have different levels of respect for the hundreds, more likely thousands, of scientists involved in the process of accumulating, studying and ordering the data regarding all of the disasters we have had the pleasure of discussing. I certainly am not in a position to judge the specifics within the body of the whole. I leave that to people who spend their entire lives devoted to the subject, the preponderance of whom indicate that climate change is real and anthropogenic and that we are in the midst of a major extinction event. I have great respect for the authors of The Limits to Growth, and find Julian Simon's arguments specious; your conclusions are contrariwise, I'm sure.

My concerns are more mundane and specific to what I see around me, which is apparently very different from what you see. I am less heavily invested in capitalism or socialism or any -ism, than I am in finding ways to live on a healthy wholesome planet. To even believe that that is possible may be the product of an overactive imagination. But I do love this planet, this ocean, and all its inhabitants, not just the humans. It pains me to see the damage we inflict on it, not realizing that for whatever benefit we perceive we are gaining, we are indeed ultimately inflicting that damage on ourselves and our progeny.

I have never had any hope of convincing you of anything; I assume you have never had any of convincing me. I responded more in the spirit of seeing if it was possible to talk to someone who fervently believes, for whatever reason, that we are on The Good and Noble Path. I am granting that you are totally sincere, and that you do not hold your beliefs for any financial gain, or to protect any personal wealth while "Rome burns", but that you truly believe that Cornucopian views are the best way to approach the issues of our time. I do not. I think they are a dangerous waste of precious time.

So on that note, I must bid you farewell, Mr. Falgout. I sincerely wish you health, happiness and prosperity. I wish it for us all.

Re: competition

From: Steve Beck, May 14, 2010 04:53 PM


Our competitive nature is natural, and not a problem. The problem, I believe, lies in the belief that ADVERSARIAL competition against others is necessary for survival and success. This belief is not only a misunderstanding of what is required for genuine success--it also gives implicit permission to the "winners" to dominate and exploit the losers and their resources. I think this belief underlies conquest and empire in its many historical forms including global industrial capitalism. We tend not to recognize this belief as a belief, but instead tend to regard it as the self-evident nature of existence. Nevertheless, we all learn the phrases: "it's a dog-eat-dog world", "might makes right", and "to the victor goes the spoils".

Neither adversarial competition nor a belief in it, are necessary to defend against assault. The experience of being assaulted however, becomes a primary mechanism for teaching and learning the misunderstanding.

Many human societies have depleted critical resources from their resource base. This has typically resulted in collapse (Easter Island, the Mayan Empire, the Norse Greenland Colony, and the Roman Empire, to mention only a few)--or in the expansion of the empire in order to dominate and exploit someone else's resources. Resource substitution is part of the same overall process.

The climate science is clear: human activity and the burning of fossil fuels, are making a significant contribution to global climate change. There are of course many people, and many corporations, with an invested interest in denying the reality of anthropogenic global warming. This denial is abetted by the time lag between greenhouse gas accumulation and the warming that it will produce.

The only notable discrepancy between global climate modeling and global reality, that I'm aware of, is that the early models did not anticipate the speed with which glaciers and sea ice are melting.

And finally, I'm not proposing an economic process that would result in an equal outcome for all people. I am proposing equitable and sustainable access to resources in order, as you say, "to assure equal opportunity for all humans".

More specifically, I would say that all people and indigenous species have an inalienable ethical right of free access, to a sufficient (and sustainable) minimum of land and resource to support life--which supersedes the right of individuals, corporations, and institutions to dominate and exploit the global commons for power or profit.


From: Dennis Falgout, May 14, 2010 11:24 AM


Extinctions. I did visit all three of the websites that you linked. I do not have time to review them in depth and will not until at least next Wed. My initial impression was that I was seeing a lot of alarmism.

Peak Oil I agree that we will never exhaust every molecule of oil, in fact I said that it will become uneconomical and we will replace it with something different and less expensive. Economics always drives resource changes. It might be getting tough out there, but it still is economical. Nothing on the horizon can even hope to become as inexpensive. Yes, most estimates of the total capacity of oil in newly discovered reservoirs are inaccurate. The oil companies always get more oil from them than the original estimates predicted.

Climate Change I watched your video and my objection to the lecturer’s thesis is that he assumes facts not in evidence. He wants me to assume that the worst case scenarios might possibly happen. I cannot do that and no one else should either, because they are fantasies, not logical projections. The fact that previous higher concentrations of carbon dioxide did not cause runaway warming is powerful evidence against the worst case scenarios.

You continue to refer to a “preponderance of evidence” that points a finger at carbon dioxide as the cause of the ongoing warming. In fact, the preponderance of evidence disproves the carbon dioxide hypothesis. That evidence includes the absence of the tropospheric hot spot over the equatorial and temperate regions between 10,000 and 30,000 feet elevation. The models all predict that it, but the temperature data from balloons and satellites demonstrate that it is not there.

The second failure is that the models all predict that the higher elevations and Polar Regions will warm faster than temperate and tropical areas. That is not happening. Even NASA (Jim Hansen’s org.) recent peak in Arctic temperatures (now reversed) agrees that the changes in upper level wind patterns, unrelated to temperature changes, caused the Arctic temperature to peak. The Antarctic has cooled continuously since 1960 in spite of continuously rising carbon dioxide concentration.

The basis for the model projections of any temperature rise above about 1.5 C degrees is the model assumption that as temperatures rise the water vapor concentration will rise, i.e. the average relative humidity will remain constant. NASA satellites can find no evidence that the concentration of water vapor has risen.

The lack of any temperature change (perhaps even a cooling) during the past 15 years is damning evidence. I know that the modelers claim that 15 years is too short a time to measure climate change, but they cannot answer the question, “Where’s the heat?”, because they do not know. Kevin Trenberth described the lack of that knowledge as a “travesty”. The point here is that according to the models the earth should be continuously accumulating about 2.5 watts per square meter (that is 24/7/365). You are aware that the additional heat is not in the atmosphere as increased temperature, and the NASA data demonstrate that it is not there in the form of increased water vapor concentration (the total entropy of the atmosphere has not changed in 15 years. What you may not know is that there is a network of about 600 diving buoys, which continuously dive to a depth of about 2,000 feet, resurface report the temperature vs. depth data and then sink again. These buoys have been in operation for about 6 years and have not found a rise in the temperature of the ocean. The depth, 2,000 feet, is the maximum depth that interacts with the surface on any reasonable time scale. If the heat were in the ocean, it would be in that upper layer. This makes it clear that our planet rejects heat to the cosmos by a mechanism that modelers have not incorporated into the models.

The above observation about the planet rejecting heat by an undetermined mechanism also applies to heat accumulation that excess methane might cause.

Put all of that together with the fact that no model has ever made an accurate projection and you get to the conclusion that the IPCC is producing fantasy, not science.


From: OzarkPearl, May 13, 2010 11:41 PM

Mr. Falgout:

Regarding the current extinction event:

I am not sure that you will accept any of these sites as being up to your standards, since I am not altogether certain what you might consider an "activist organization". (If "scientists" apparently cannot work for "activist organizations", can they work for corporations? for governments? Or do they all need to be independently wealthy in order for their observations to be heeded as scientific?) Nonetheless here are a just a few easily accessed sites for your perusal:

If the sites themselves do not meet your standards, they reference peer-reviewed authors and articles which might.

Regarding Peak Oil:

I am not sure how YOU can be sure that we have 30 years to deal with the end of oil. Declared proven reserve estimates are not reliable. It is not to the advantage of producers to declare their hands. I think the fact that we are drilling in 5000 feet of water off the Gulf coast indicates that it's getting tough out there.

Additionally, we are not talking about totally using up oil. We are talking about reaching a point where extraction does not yield net energy and is therefore not worth the effort. There will probably be oil enough to fuel some segments of society for a long time, but not enough to fuel the huge economic engines we have come to love, or want to come to love, depending on our geographic and/or economic location.

Regarding climate change:

Certainly, I cannot KNOW for certain that the warming is anthropogenic, but there is a preponderance of evidence that points its bony finger in that direction. Climate is very complex and it is true that we humans are not gods. But our actions are also not without consequences and our capacity to imagine a variety of outcomes has contributed to our survival and our self-proclaimed dominance of the planet. I found this entertaining, yet quite enlightening video on YouTube, for your viewing pleasure. I think it makes it's point quite nicely:

Regarding methane hydrates (MH):

The problem with MH I am referring to is the ongoing attempts - at least for the last 20 years - to figure out how to access the subsea deposits and "harness" them for energy production. Just as in the current difficulty in the Gulf, that frozen methane, when disturbed, released, etc., rises to the surface as a gas - a greenhouse gas. I am sure we are convinced we can solve the technological problems, be home free and all our problems will evaporate (like MH). I have limited understanding of this, to be sure, but the problem seems to be how to harvest MH without releasing lots of methane into the atmosphere at the same time. Additionally, if we had some little technical difficulties (akin to a faulty blowout preventer, for example), the cascade of methane release into the atmosphere, the possible resultant heating up of the atmosphere, resultant warming of the oceans, resultant release of more methane, etc., etc. You get the picture, although your imagination does not see this as a very likely scenario, mine sees it as definitely not outside the realm of possibility.

Regarding the chances of the occurrence of these disasters:

Clearly, I think the chances are much greater than 1%. In fact, I think Peak Oil and mass extinction are here. It is merely my opinion. I would so love to be wrong. Nonetheless, I will again refer you to the above-mentioned video:

(BTW, I haven't seen Avatar, but I am sure it must be good. I hear it made a lot of money.)


From: Dennis Falgout, May 13, 2010 03:02 PM


You attribute our competitive nature to the onset of empire building about 6,000 years ago. I think it was necessary for survival long before then. I think that it is built in to our DNA by selective survival of individuals who were willing to take on the saber tooth tigers and bears to protect property and family. I also do not think that it is a misunderstanding; I think that the competitive nature was necessary for the survival of our species. Perhaps, after some long period of evolution, the human species will realize that it has won the war for possession of the planet, but I do not believe that competition among tribes for resources will ever cease.

If competition did evolve from our species, can we know that we will not receive a visit from another species which has failed to evolve? Then what?

I am unconcerned about depletion of global resources because we have never depleted a resource. We always find better ways of doing things and move onto another resource. As I have said, anthropogenic global warming is a fiction that exists only in computer models. The real world does not adhere to the hypothesized model.

I think that to guarantee equal outcome for all humans, which you seem to be suggesting, is the wrong way to go. We must assure equal opportunity for all humans.


From: Dennis Falgout, May 13, 2010 02:33 PM


It seems to me that you believe several unsubstantiated rumors that are making the rounds of the radical activist organizations. For example, you refer to earthly life forms as “blinking out at alarming rates”. I have not seen any census data for life forms and know of no ongoing rapid extinction of them. Do you? Can you refer me to an article by a scientist that shows that rapid extinctions are occurring? By the way, scientists do not work for activist organizations.

You next refer to peak oil as though it is a demonstrated fact. I have heard many dire predictions of the impending end of petroleum supplies. However, I also know that the extent of proven reserves has been approximately 30-years supply for approximately 100 years. How do you know that we have found all of the oil that we ever will find? Have geologists proven that there are no more oil reserves anywhere in the world. Have we discovered all of the natural gas that exists? How could you know? I think you confuse the theoretical possibility of depleting all of the oil on the planet with the actual accomplishment of the depletion. I realize that it is probable that at some time we will have found all of the oil. I also realize that it will be difficult to know that we have reached the limit. However, I also realize that we will have approximately 30-years to deal with the end of oil when and if it does occur.

You refer to climate change as if there is proof that the warming that has been occurring for 10,000 years is all of a sudden the fault of humans burning fossil fuels. I think that there is no such proof. If you know where the proof exists, will you tell me how to find it? I am aware that a cadre of computer modelers is predicting that continued use of fossil fuels will build the concentration of carbon dioxide to the point that we will have run away global warming. I also am aware that none of their computer model projections has ever been accurate and that they now acknowledge that there has been no warming since 1995 in spite of continuously increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. I also know that there have been times in geological history when the carbon dioxide concentration was as much as 10 times what it is today and that runaway warming did not occur any of those times. I also know that it was warmer during the Medieval Climate Optimum (circa 950 – 1300 AD) when the carbon dioxide concentration was lower than it is today.

You may see the consequences of a warming climate in many places, but you do not see strong evidence that carbon dioxide is causing the warming anyplace.

Methane has more absorption bands in the temperature range at which the earth emits heat than carbon dioxide. However, the concentration of methane is quite low, a few parts per million, and does not appear to be increasing. Its effect is even less than the effect of carbon dioxide. In addition, like carbon dioxide the heating response the atmosphere to each doubling of methane concentration is equal to the increase from the preceding doubling. In other words, the effect is self limiting. The methane hydrates have existed for eons, what makes you think that burning fossil fuels will make them more likely to erupt and increase the concentration of methane in the atmosphere?

I do not think that there is even a 1% chance of occurrence of the disasters that you describe. I believe that they all are the products of fertile imaginations, much like “Avatar”.

Reply to Dennis

From: Steve Beck, May 12, 2010 06:34 PM

Thanks for your reply to my earlier comment.

Actually, I believe that Socialism and Communism are just different versions of Capitalism. They fail to solve the problem of inequity inherent in Capitalism, because Karl Marx failed to understand the root cause of Capitalism's inability to achieve genuine success. Indeed, as you correctly point out, the problem is not human nature. Nor does the problem lie in private ownership (per se), or private enterprise, or the pursuit of self-interest.

The root cause of the inherent failure of Capitalism, and our escalating global economic-social-ecological crisis, lies I believe, in our collectively inherited misunderstanding that survival and success require an adversarial competitive struggle to dominate and exploit people and resources, for power, status, and wealth. This misunderstanding traces back some 6,000 years to the advent of conquest and empire.

The consequence of this misunderstanding is that it effectively prevents us from understanding and acting in cooperation with the way that existence actually works--which makes it almost impossible to achieve an optimum with an equitable and sustainable minimum of resource.

Our misunderstanding has led to the design of technologies, and our current economic process, for the purpose of maximizing power and wealth for the few, rather than for the purpose of producing what we all actually need.

Most critically, our misunderstanding, when acted upon, creates the very conditions of failure that seem to prove it true! As our global crisis escalates, we seek solutions by acting ever more desparately to do what causes failure in the first place.

And we tend to deny the consequences of our failure--resource depletion and global climate change in particular.

Designing a dwelling and economic process that can actually benefit all people and the planet is not that difficult. It does not require altruism. It does require cutting through denial, recognizing the root misunderstanding that prevents genuine success, understanding the inherent principles by which existence actually functions, and realising that it is in our best individual and collective self-interest to ensure access to the necessities of life for all first.

Cornucopian dreams

From: OzarkPearl, May 12, 2010 04:17 PM

Mr. Falgout:

I sincerely hope you are right. Wouldn't it be loverly?!

Unfortunately, all signs point to a different outcome for most of the lifeforms currently occupying the planet (blinking out at alarming rates). I guess I agree with Dick Cheney: if there is even a 1% chance of something we don't want to happen happening, we need to act to prevent it, if possile. I consider the consequences of Peak Oil and Climate Change something we don't want to happen. I see evidence of the consequences of these events in many places. Therefore, I find it prudent to act to support my life support systems. Perhaps I am an alarmist. I, of course, think not.

BTW, I understand that you are not worried about a world heating up too much, but just in case you were, it is my understanding that methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon and the consequences of releasing methane hydrates could indeed be even more catastrophic than our present activities are. But then, by your lights, I am clearly a deluded neo-malthusian alarmist. Maybe I am. I have always been a risk-taker, but this risk is too big for me.

Reply to Asher:

From: Dennis Falgout, May 11, 2010 12:20 PM

Your statement that our fossil-fuel resources are finite and depleting is not wrong, it just misses the point that as recovery and use of those resources becomes expensive, other sources will become relatively less expensive and will supplant the fossil fuels. That is sure to happen long before we extract the last few molecules of fossil fuels from the ground. It seems likely that oil and coal are non-renewable, at least not in any reasonable time, (they once were trees and animals). It also seems possible that methane permeates the entire planet; that it was included during the coalescing of the Earth. Formation of methane may also be continuing through a high temperature and high pressure reaction between water and carbonate as the surface crust recycles through the hot depths of the mantle. Researchers produced such a reaction in a laboratory recently.

We do not consume water and turn it into waste. Water picks up contaminants during our use of it. We can and do treat the used water to remove those contaminants before we discharge it back into streams and rivers. The additional time and conditions that exist in those rivers and streams further purify the water to the extent that cities downstream can extract water from those rivers, treat it and distribute it to its citizens.

My response was that we can at some cost treat and reuse water; I did not suggest that we need to embark on a program of expending “a great deal of energy to convert it back into drinkable fresh water. I did point out one technology, reverse osmosis, which is common today, and mention a second, distillation, which could be used if sufficient energy, i.e. nuclear fusion works out. That technology could provide unimaginable quantities of energy.

The 500-year estimate is one that I read somewhere. It could be off by a couple of hundred years and still not obviate my point that we have time. There is no need for panic.

The latest update to Limits to Growth is no more accurate than the original. It is just more depressing drivel by Malthusian naysayers. It is clear that the population of successful societies does not increase faster than the means of subsistence. Poverty causes unsustainable birth rates; increasing wealth slows the rate of population growth, and will produce a relatively stable population. Butterflies may continue reproducing until their numbers overwhelm their ability to feed themselves, but it is clear that humans do not behave that way. A look at the populations of wealthy nations, e.g. Europe, Japan, the US and even India demonstrates the effect.

The climate has not been stable for the past 10,000 years. The climate has warmed significantly since the end of the last Ice Age. Sea levels have risen hundreds of feet, the glaciers have retreated to mere shadows of their former selves, extinctions have occurred and humans have thrived. These changes have not been monotonic; there have been periods of warming temperatures and periods of falling temperatures. The trend has been upward.

There is no evidence that carbon dioxide has caused or will cause any significant change in the temperature of our climate. Observations do not support the projections of the IPCC computer models. Those models have never produced an accurate 5- or 10-year projection of climate temperature. And, they never will.

You are right when you say that fossil fuels will leave us at some point anyway. We will find better ways to generate the energy and mobile fuels that we need and their use will fade just as use of ambergris faded. However, they are what runs the economy now and it makes no sense to make them more expensive than they need to be by imposing supercilious taxes and restrictions on their use.

re: re: Dennis

From: Asher Miller, May 11, 2010 09:54 AM

I guess I'm a sucker for a pointless argument...

I'd love to be illuminated why my statement that “that the natural resources which have fueled it are finite and, in most cases, depleting” is wrong.

Are you claiming that fossil fuels are not a non-renewable resource?

You say: "No one consumes water. All of the water that was ever on the planet is still here (excepting that which may have diffused into outer space)."

Another strawman argument. If freshwater is consumed and turned into waste; if it melts from a glacier and flows into the Ocean; if it's contaminated by fertilizers and pesticides... is it still freshwater? Can you drink it? Your response to this challenge is that we expend a great deal of energy to convert it back into drinkable fresh water. There again lies an assumption that we have a great deal of cheap, non-polluting energy. We don't.

You're simply wrong about the Club of Rome. Try reading the 30-Year Update to Limits to Growth or looking into other studies that have confirmed the original study's essential thesis.

On what data do you base your claim that we have 500 years worth of coal in the US? Not even the EIA makes that claim. The question is not how much coal is in the ground, it's how much coal is cost-effective to produce? That number is much, much lower as our own Senior Fellow, Richard Heinberg, details in his book Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis.

Which is not to say that we don't have enough coal to ring the death knell for any hopes of us maintaining any vestige of the climate stability we've enjoyed over the last 10,000 years. We need to get off fossil fuels for two reasons: 1) They are destroying the stability of our climate, not to mention a range of other environmental horrors; and 2) They will leave us at some point, anyway.

Reply to Steve:

From: Dennis Falgout, May 11, 2010 05:23 AM

It seems to me, that your post sounds like a speech that Lenin might have given in the 1920s. The lesson of the 20th century was that Communism and Socialism do not work. I believe that they fail because at their heart is a mistaken notion about human nature. It seems to me that both of them require that altruism be the primary force driving human behavior. I believe the primary force driving human behavior to be self-interest. Capitalism, with controls needed to prevent excesses, is perfect if my belief is correct. The failures of Communism and Socialism seem to indicate that their assumption about human nature is incorrect.

I believe that any economic system that we design to benefit everyone will ultimately benefit no one and will fail.


From: Ed Straker, May 10, 2010 01:46 PM

"Did the Stone Age end when we used up all of the stones?"

Anyone who uses this hackneyed phrase is not to be taken seriously on a site like this, for obvious reasons.

I'm surprised that cornucopian attitudes like this show up in the comments. If you really feel that optimistic about the future, why read this blog?

Reply to Asher:

From: Dennis Falgout, May 10, 2010 12:20 PM

I believe that it is you who has missed my point. I said that your statement that “that the natural resources which have fueled it are finite and, in most cases, depleting” is wrong. You make the same mistake that Paul Ehrlich made when he bet with Julian Simon. The Club of Rome made the same mistake in 1972 and its acolytes continue to make it today. That mistake is the assumption that we know what resources will be important in the future. My mentions of ambergris and stones were not straw men; they were trivial examples of the point. At one time both (and whale oil) were critical resources now they are not and we never depleted them. The mistake that you make is to assume that humans will not continue to innovate and improve the ways that we do things.

No one consumes water. All of the water that was ever on the planet is still here (excepting that which may have diffused into outer space). The solution to water shortages is replenishment of vitiated water effluents. Reverse osmosis, nuclear power driven distillation (especially if nuclear fusion eventuates), are possible solutions. I am certain that there are other solutions that neither you nor I can even imagine.

The existing atmosphere is fine, does not, and will not need replacement.

There has been no “massive environmental cost” caused by Dr Bourlaug’s re-focusing of farming in poor nations. If you look around, you will see that the best environments exist in countries with successful economies and plentiful food. The poorest nations are the ones who consume all of their economic resources feeding themselves and who have no resources left to provide environmental protection. The food delivery system has not broken down, and given the amount of redundancy that it contains, it is not likely that it ever will.

I hear the mantra fossil fuels are near depletion repeatedly. When last I looked the USA, possessed sufficient coal to last 500 years at current use rates. That should be sufficient time to develop improved energy sources. Perhaps Scotty will show us how to build di-lithium reactors. Who knows? The fact that I cannot tell you what the replacement will be does not lessen the probability that humans will find a replacement. I believe that probability to be 100 percent.

Were you aware that the known petroleum reserves have been sufficient to supply about 30-years at existing use rates since about 1915? We always seem to find more. Can we continue to do so? I don’t know. However, we have 30-years now and that seems enough time to find replacements. Petroleum only provides fuel for mobile sources. Most of those are amenable to alternative fuels, such as alcohols and natural gas.

You cannot ignore the fact that modern capitalism has brought us the longest, most disease free life spans that have ever existed. The humans who are lucky enough to be born into successful societies have the most comfortable existences in all of history. That seems to me to be a pretty strong argument for the hypothesis that ours is the best of all worlds that have ever existed. However, it does not prove that a better way will not be found. I do believe that a return to the past, as in organic farming, to be pointless. We were there and where we are is better.

Response to Asher and Dennis

From: Steve Beck, May 6, 2010 10:47 PM

Great article Asher--and wonderfully incisive comment!

Dennis--you offer an interesting perspective that is understandable in its reflection of the status quo--but curious in its denial of reality.

All too many people in the industrially developed nations today are in fact trapped in a life-time of unaffordable rent-mortgage-debt-wage-ENSLAVEMENT--and are all too often working 60 hours a week for 40 hours of pay--if they are lucky enough to have a job. The aversion that many people have for the work they do is exceeded only by their fear of job loss! TGIF is the mantra of our society.

By contrast, the almost universal consensus is that hunter-gatherers worked, on average, for three hours per day--and had longer life spans than did most Feudal era Europeans. And their achievement actually required an enormous amount of knowledge, skill, and sophisticated Paleotechnologies that the vast majority of us no longer possess.

Technology is certainly the key to improved standards of living. But industrial technologies have been designed for the express purpose of maximizing profit for owners and investors through the exploitation of resources, producers, and consumers--NOT for the purpose of improving life for the vast majority.

Indeed, most people on the planet today have NOT benefited from industrial technologies or the egregious wealth accumulated by the few, through the exploitation of our global commons.

And finally, most of the "stuff" celebrated as a sign of prosperity has only been possible through the exploitation of cheap oil and other critical non-renewable resources that we are rapidly depleting--for which there are NO known replacements.

All of this clearly indicates that the real opportunity for improving the quality of life is to re-design our technologies, and our economic process, to benefit EVERYONE--rather than the already wealthy few.

It seems to me that you have already arrived at the essence of this conclusion, in one of your closing statements, with which I fully agree (with one proviso): "We should opt to try to make the bounty that we enjoy available to every human."

All I would add is that true bounty can only be achieved by learning how to design and use appropriate, decentralized, (solar) technologies to accomplish an equitable optimum with a TRULY sustainable minimum of resource.

reply to Dennis

From: Asher Miller, May 6, 2010 05:51 PM


I'm glad you took the time to read my post, though I find it surprising that you would bother replying to my characterization of Shermer's op-ed piece without taking the time to read it yourself.

As I'm sure you'll note, I did acknowledge that Shermer was right on a number of counts:

"And Shermer makes some valid points. Overall quality of life globally has improved: we’ve eradicated horrific diseases like small pox; we’ve greatly extended life spans in much of the world; for many of us, we have more free time and, well, freedom, than our ancestors. The list goes on."

But my thesis was that his piece is essentially pointless. Sure, we can acknowledge and even tout all the remarkable advances of the last 250 years or so (particularly the last 50), but that doesn't change the fact that we are facing real and hard consequences from our industrial binge or that the natural resources which have fueled it are finite and, in most cases, depleting.

Yes, the green revolution has greatly increased global food production. But it has done so at massive environmental cost and is incredibly vulnerable to breaks in industrial food supply chains, soil erosion, fossil fuel depletion, fresh water scarcity, etc.

Re: your comments about ambergris and the stone age. Talk about a strawman. Please, tell me what source of energy can replace fossil fuels. And please tell me what atmosphere can replace this one.

I would not go so far as to say it's criminal to try preserve indigenous cultures (there is a difference, by the way, between helping indigenous cultures try to preserve their traditional way of life and, as you say, "deny[ing] the fruits of modern civilization to some cultures they find quaint"), but--as I expressly wrote--I have as much issue with people blindly idealizing indigenous cultures as I do with others blindly saying that ours is the best of all possible worlds.

Your essay

From: Dennis Falgout, May 6, 2010 03:03 PM

Admittedly, I have not read the entire Shermer article, only the portions that you have quoted, however, having read that much makes me think that you have set up and struck down a straw man. Did Shermer claim that the increased income makes us happier? I suspect that he cited health, longevity, education and other accruements of modern civilization. And, to have done so would have been correct. We are living better than anyone who proceeded us, even the kings and queens; all attributable to modern technology. I am however, convinced that the great reduction in death at childbirth has made many of us happier.
The fact that “far too many people (sic) live in abject poverty” does not disprove anything that Shermer might have said about the far larger number of persons who live comfortable lives in developed societies. Your example of the number of starving equaling the number of overweight among us is meaningless. It has to do with failure of governments to distribute food not with any lack of availability. The fact is that within the past decade, the quantity of food available exceeded 2,000 calories per capita day for the first time ever in the 100,000 years or so that homo sapiens have existed. No mean feat in view of the rapidly expanding population. The improvement was brought to you by improved farming technology, not by restrictions on birth rates or by any other means that Paul Ehrlich once recommended.
When you last checked our supply of resources what did you happen to find out about the stocks of ambergris and celluloid? Are those still in good supply? Do we care? Is there any resource that we depended on one-hundred years ago that is in short supply today? Did the Stone Age end when we used up all of the stones? You cannot know what our technology will be using in 10-years. You cannot possibly believe that we will run short of something that we will be unable to replace. Have you ever heard of the term ersatz?
Have you not heard of the inverse relationship between wellbeing and birth rate? Look at birth rates in developed countries and compare them to birth rates in destitute countries. You will see that the UN is correct when they project that the population of earth will level out, stabilize and ultimately decline as wellbeing spreads throughout the world. You can see it happening in India today.
Personally, I find it abhorrent that some radical activists want to deny the fruits of modern civilization to some cultures that they find quaint, merely to preserve a curiosity on earth. I think that such behavior is criminal. We should opt to try to make the bounty that we enjoy available to every human.
What I find “messy, conflicted, inconsistent, is your essay. I suppose that you have been consistent in your use of your opinions for refutation of Shermer’s observations. You cannot quote Bill McKibbon if you wish to be taken seriously.