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Too Much Magical Thinking In Energy?  Depends On What Magic Is


Magic book with purple leather cover and gold pages. Magical rays of light shine from the almost closed book. Book on a black background with space for text.

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A new report by Mark Mills, “The ‘New Energy Economy’:  An Exercise in Magical Thinking,” explores some of the hard numbers behind the proposed transition to a carbon-free energy system (whether power generation or total), which numerous activists and governments have held up as a target. The tendency to avoid explaining how such a goal will be achieved is easily understood when Mills examines the hard math behind the necessary effort. For example, “Renewable energy would have to expand 90-fold to replace global hydrocarbons in two decades. It took a half-century for global petroleum production to expand “only” 10-fold.”

The paper brilliantly demonstrates the gap between much of the wishful thinking on climate policy and the reality of implementation. The interesting thing to me (one of them, at least) is that it turns one argument made by some activists’ on its head, namely the claim that optimists (such as Bjorn Lomborg) are engaged in ‘magical thinking’ and should be disregarded. This type of claim actually predates that notable’s The Skeptical Environmentalist by several decades and has been a continuing theme of the alarmist/millenarian camp.

Famed pundits Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John Holdren in their 1977 Ecoscience explain “It is certainly evident that no conceivable increase in the food supply can keep up with current population growth rates indefinitely.” The authors of The Limits to Growth were more cautious, saying that “Reduction to less than one-fourth of the present rate of pollution generation is probably unrealistic because of cost…,” and that some problems, like replacement of asbestos in brake linings, were physically difficult. All have been proven completely wrong by subsequent events.

More recently, Richard Heinberg says, “Climate scientists, in turn, have come up with a series of proposals that are the equivalent of magic: They deliver desired results, but only if you believe in miracles.” (emphasis added)  James Howard Kunstler even published a book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking,Technology, and the Fate of the Nation in which he derisively refers to “techno-grandiosity”. 

Why do they find assuming future technological progress so difficult? The primary explanation seems to be that since you can’t predict any given advance, you can’t predict progress more generally. The founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil makes this clear: “It’s no use having bland statements about the power of technology,” says Dr. Campbell. “I just want to know where and when.”

How does this work in practice? The Limits to Growth authors took as oil resources the number 455 billion barrels, not realizing that it was proved reserves, a tiny subset of the total resource.  To represent a scenario where technological advances increase the resource, they used five times that number, or 2.3 trillion barrels.  Since publication of the book, the world has consumed 1.1 trillion barrels and has 1.7 trillion barrels of proved reserves, more than their optimistic cases.  And again, a small subset of the total resource, which probably exceeds 30 trillion barrels if heavy oil and kerogen are included. The recoverable portion of that resource has steadily increased, and is now thought to be almost twice their optimistic estimate.

There is a major difference between the Mills dismissal of “magical thinking” and that of Heinberg and others. Mills is arguing against the possibility of something that requires an extraordinary change in behavior (especially massive investments), while the neo-Malthusians are defining magical thinking as thinking past progress will continue. As the figure below shows, there has been if anything an acceleration in U.S. agricultural productivity. (Many more examples can be found in my working paper, “The Origins of Resource Pessimism and its Consequences.”)

Total Factor Productivity, U.S. Agriculture (2005=100)

The author for DOA data.

It is very telling that authors like Kunstler and Heinberg refer to technological optimism as a reliance on “magic,” since famed futurist Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, primitive technology can be as well, as ancient alien proponents argue that achievements like the pyramids or the Nazca Lines are beyond their comprehension, and so must be attributable to alien technology. Perhaps neo-Malthusian books should be included in the occult section of libraries.

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Magic book with purple leather cover and gold pages. Magical rays of light shine from the almost closed book. Book on a black background with space for text.

Getty

A new report by Mark Mills, “The ‘New Energy Economy’:  An Exercise in Magical Thinking,” explores some of the hard numbers behind the proposed transition to a carbon-free energy system (whether power generation or total), which numerous activists and governments have held up as a target. The tendency to avoid explaining how such a goal will be achieved is easily understood when Mills examines the hard math behind the necessary effort. For example, “Renewable energy would have to expand 90-fold to replace global hydrocarbons in two decades. It took a half-century for global petroleum production to expand “only” 10-fold.”

The paper brilliantly demonstrates the gap between much of the wishful thinking on climate policy and the reality of implementation. The interesting thing to me (one of them, at least) is that it turns one argument made by some activists’ on its head, namely the claim that optimists (such as Bjorn Lomborg) are engaged in ‘magical thinking’ and should be disregarded. This type of claim actually predates that notable’s The Skeptical Environmentalist by several decades and has been a continuing theme of the alarmist/millenarian camp.

Famed pundits Paul and Anne Ehrlich and John Holdren in their 1977 Ecoscience explain “It is certainly evident that no conceivable increase in the food supply can keep up with current population growth rates indefinitely.” The authors of The Limits to Growth were more cautious, saying that “Reduction to less than one-fourth of the present rate of pollution generation is probably unrealistic because of cost…,” and that some problems, like replacement of asbestos in brake linings, were physically difficult. All have been proven completely wrong by subsequent events.

More recently, Richard Heinberg says, “Climate scientists, in turn, have come up with a series of proposals that are the equivalent of magic: They deliver desired results, but only if you believe in miracles.” (emphasis added)  James Howard Kunstler even published a book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking,Technology, and the Fate of the Nation in which he derisively refers to “techno-grandiosity”. 

Why do they find assuming future technological progress so difficult? The primary explanation seems to be that since you can’t predict any given advance, you can’t predict progress more generally. The founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil makes this clear: “It’s no use having bland statements about the power of technology,” says Dr. Campbell. “I just want to know where and when.”

How does this work in practice? The Limits to Growth authors took as oil resources the number 455 billion barrels, not realizing that it was proved reserves, a tiny subset of the total resource.  To represent a scenario where technological advances increase the resource, they used five times that number, or 2.3 trillion barrels.  Since publication of the book, the world has consumed 1.1 trillion barrels and has 1.7 trillion barrels of proved reserves, more than their optimistic cases.  And again, a small subset of the total resource, which probably exceeds 30 trillion barrels if heavy oil and kerogen are included. The recoverable portion of that resource has steadily increased, and is now thought to be almost twice their optimistic estimate.

There is a major difference between the Mills dismissal of “magical thinking” and that of Heinberg and others. Mills is arguing against the possibility of something that requires an extraordinary change in behavior (especially massive investments), while the neo-Malthusians are defining magical thinking as thinking past progress will continue. As the figure below shows, there has been if anything an acceleration in U.S. agricultural productivity. (Many more examples can be found in my working paper, “The Origins of Resource Pessimism and its Consequences.”)

Total Factor Productivity, U.S. Agriculture (2005=100)

The author for DOA data.

It is very telling that authors like Kunstler and Heinberg refer to technological optimism as a reliance on “magic,” since famed futurist Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Of course, primitive technology can be as well, as ancient alien proponents argue that achievements like the pyramids or the Nazca Lines are beyond their comprehension, and so must be attributable to alien technology. Perhaps neo-Malthusian books should be included in the occult section of libraries.


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