Sunday, February 26, 2012

Physcist Tom Murphy Reveals Malthusian Peak Oiler Proclivities

Tom Murphy is a UCSD physicist who has been featured here more than once, as an example of one of the more intelligent and rational peak oilers. At the end of yesterday's piece on the 93rd Nuclear Blogging Carnival, we took a quick look at Murphy's latest article and confession.
Tom Murphy

It is important to follow the thinking of persons such as Murphy, who are apparently open-minded, intelligent, and at the same time display Malthusian peak oiler tendencies. The table above was featured prominently in Murphy's most recent essay, in which he confesses to Malthusian fears of the end of civilisation, due to the exhaustion of ready energy sources. The curious thing about the table is its ranking of energy sources in terms of "superiority" or "inferiority." It goes without saying that Murphy's "threat matrix" obscures a large number of questionable assumptions and blindspots of various kinds. That would be true of all such constructs. But let's look further, in to "Pascal's Wager-esque" nature of Murphy's thoughts:
Which is worse? If I advocate a path of restraint and careful transition to a possibly lower-energy future and I am ultimately shown to be wrong about the limits we face, what’s the damage? In this scenario, we’ve stabilized our system into something approximating sustainability. If we learn later that we have more resources available, we can make the choice to spend them profligately, use them sparingly, or ignore them. But we do so from a position of stability. If, on the other hand, the critic convinces us that the future is up, up, up, and we don’t take resource limits seriously then their being wrong is disastrous because we charge into overshoot, overextension, hit resource limits hard, and run a serious risk of societal collapse. _Tom Murphy
Definitely a Pascal's wager approach, of a quasi-religious type. That is not meant as criticism, but rather as observation. More of Murphy's underlying feeling:
My hunch is that human nature, political realities, economics (including economic hardship) combined with technical shortcomings of alternatives will get in the way of our shiny future. I would like to be convinced that this isn’t the case so I can stop worrying and go full-force on my experimental physics career, but the arguments for why things will be alright often strike me as narrow or simplistic. “It’s obvious: we’ll go to space where resources are unlimited.” “You’re forgetting something very important: human ingenuity—an unlimited resource.” “More sun hits the Earth in an hour than we use in a year: it’s obvious we’ll solve this problem.” “We have enough fuel sitting in nuclear waste pools to power us for millennia.” “Peak oil will not be a problem because we have tons more hydrocarbons in the ground beyond conventional petroleum.” You get the picture: a key idea that will make everything work out. It has the same ring as “Home prices in San Diego can never go down because it is such a desirable place to live,” which I ignored in 2005 in favor of data and more complex analyses.

...What hit home for me personally is the notion that a worst-case collapse of civilization (not unknown to history, let us recall) would be damaging to the thing I hold dearest: our accumulated knowledge of how the world works—science. Science is a luxury of highly functional societies. It is no coincidence that scientific advance is most rapid in this day and age when surplus energy is at its peak. How many computer records, tapes, CDROMs, etc., risk destruction or degradation in a collapse—even if it lasts only a century. In the more dismal collapse scenarios, how many science journals are burned for warmth? (It’s fairly certain that volumes of the Astrophysical Journal will disappear from the library before Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is sacrificed: ApJ does not make for entertaining fireside reading.)

It was always implicit for me that work invested into science will stand for all time. But the notion that my contribution to science—however incremental—may be irrevocably lost has taken some of the appeal away, I must admit. It would seem prudent, then, for scientists to devote time and talent toward our impending energy challenges. The first step is to convince people that we must swing our attention hard-over toward understanding exactly how we wean ourselves off of the fossil fuel lifeblood of our society. Either we figure it out or Mother Nature will do it for us. I for one want to fight to keep humanity’s most impressive achievements intact and understood!

... I do not want to accept defeat. I have a similar urge when it comes to our future challenge: this predicament requires all-out commitment. The problem is, commitment on an individual scale does not amount to much. That’s why I started Do the Math: to convey my sense of just how challenging our future will be, so that we might increase the chances of some collective action that can make a difference. My path started with hope, but was largely supplanted by fear. I apologize for resorting to similar tactics for my audience, but fear sure made me change my behaviors and expectations, and it may turn out to be an effective tool for us all. _Tom Murphy
One can sympathise with these emotions and forebodings. But one should not be ruled by them. And while Murphy himself is not likely to remain in this quagmire of defeatism forever, it is clear by reading the comments after the piece, that many of his readers are quite prepared to wallow in the mire of doom for the duration.

We remarked in yesterday's AFE posting that Tom Murphy's crisis moment, or "moment of truth," is a good thing for Murphy himself -- since it presents him with the motivation to achieve an extraordinary transformation of thinking. Such "road to Damascus moments" are rare in a humdrum everyday life of routine duties and obligations.

One is always given the choice to give up. That is the easy choice. It is the way of the doomer, the way of the defeatist. Mediocre minds -- once having made the choice -- tend to remain in the state of defeatism. Better minds, such as one should presume Tom Murphy's to be, are just as likely or likelier to convert the defeatism into something far more powerful -- power solving skills, and a hardening of internal grit.

We know that big wind and big solar are not workable solutions to the needs of modern societies. For example:

Without government mandates and taxpayer subsidies, wind would be toast

Materials needs for a big wind and big solar infrastructure are enormous, and enormously underestimated

The countries that have already committed themselves to big wind and big solar are already having serious second thoughts

Allocating scarce resources to building a big wind and big solar infrastructure means neglecting the building of an infrastructure that could save modern civilisation

A rational look at renewables PDF

We will not rely on hydrocarbon fuels forever, but there are plenty of hydrocarbons left to serve as a bridge to longer-lasting power sources

Sure, Tom Murphy is worried about CO2 induced climate change, which biases the assumptions he uses for his matrix. But given the total misallocation of resources that big wind and big solar represent in terms of meeting practical power demands for modern civilisations, how in the world does Murphy use his fear of civilisational collapse to justify ranking wind and solar at or near the top of his hierarchy?

Only deep human emotion can explain the choices that Murphy made in designing such a "solutions matrix." There is nothing wrong with a physicist displaying deep human emotions. If not for emotions, human cognitive abilities would be much less capable of problem-solving.

But when planning the future of all mankind, one must be careful to balance reason with emotion. It is not enough to claim to "do the numbers" or to "exhaustively calculate all the possibilities." No one can exhaustively calculate all the possibilities -- it is delusional to believe that one has done so.

According to his words, Murphy is at a crisis point. He can either choose to go forward, or choose the easy path of defeat. He claims that he is using "fear" as a tool to influence his readers' behaviours -- presumably in the ballot box and in their daily lives. But that is the strategy of any street-corner soap-box doomsayer. We want Tom Murphy to be better than that.

We want Tom Murphy to meet his own crisis himself, and to come through on the other side a more honest, rational, and competent combatant in the war for the human future. One cannot hide behind consensus or crowds or readers' comments, when one confronts his own personal crisis moment.

Good luck, Tom.



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