Peak Oil, Peak Travel, Peak Food, and why Innovation will not Save us

Posted on January 12, 2011


Today, the Freakonomics Blog published an interesting story on what its author calls peak travel, and it has some good news for tree-huggers like myself. It seems that we maybe, possibly, could actually be reducing our reliance on motor vehicles:

I can’t imagine why it would be the case. Perhaps the recession drove more people onto public transit, or maybe Generation Y simply drives less than their parents and grandparents, who are increasingly becoming unfit to drive. Or perhaps the suburbs are losing their appeal and more young workers are choosing to live in cities where public transit is available. Maybe it’s something as simple as fuel costs. The pessimist in me thinks that it’s just a blip, and in five years we’ll be back to our gas-guzzling, CO2-spewing ways. The optimist in me is telling the pessimist in me to shut up.

In any case, the appropriate policy response is to do whatever can be done to help encourage the trend. If we’re in a period where fewer people are driving cars, then we need to take steps to decrease the appeal of driving so that fewer people start driving and more sustainable forms of transportation become the new norm. We can capitalize on this development with more investment in public transit and bike infrastructure, as well as providing economic disincentives to discourage car ownership. To put it another way: now is the time to do exactly the opposite of what Rob Ford is doing. But that should hardly be a surprise.

Despite this possibly encouraging news, there is one comment made in the freakonomics article which ticks me off a little bit. It opens with the following statement:

“Call me a skeptic about the “peak oil” story. Human ingenuity has always found ways to produce more of, find substitutes for, or discover ways to do without a scarce resource when price signals tell us to.”

This is a simple restatement of Julian Simon’s troubling assertion that we needn’t worry about resource shortages, because the laws of the marketplace will produce a substitute. This is little more than a smokescreen for economists to justify the doomed project of continued economic growth. It is a dangerous argument, and it is fallacious for two reasons I can think of.

Firstly, it engages in technological determinism. Simon appears to see science and technology as a kind of black box from which the solution to any conceivable problem can be pulled. The problem with this is that technological innovation is dependent on cultural conditions. In the Christian Middle Ages, for example, there were very few improvements in agricultural technology because despite the frequent food shortages, the prevailing culture saw the minimizing of human labour as a low priority. New and better technology was eventually imported from China, which had no such cultural hangups. Since culture has, to a large degree, become a global phenomenon, however, it would be unwise to rely on a similar salvation if our future culture fails to provide the necessary innovation.

For a more concrete example of how this could work, imagine that we hit peak oil. One consequence of this is that it will suddenly become much more expensive to maintain our current system of agriculture, which relies on intensive use of petroleum-based fertilizers as well as fuel-intensive cultivation and transportation practices. The end result will be that food will become less plentiful. At this point, Simon and Morris would expect the invisible hand of the market to produce an electric tractor, a solar-powered distribution network, and a nuclear fertilizer synthesis machine all from thin air. The problem is that investment in these innovations will be at best an unsure and delayed solution. A far more tangible and reliable fix will be to simply take more of the food that has already been grown. The chaos resulting from both individuals and nations acting on this rationale could very well undermine the very free on which all market-based solutions depend. Technological innovation cannot happen unless there are already adequate resources to support engineers, scientists and inventors.

The second reason why this is fallacious should be obvious to anybody who has taken a high-school physics course. It has to do with the laws of thermodynamics. I will introduce it with a quote from Sir Arthur Eddington, who, apart from providing first experimental proof of General Relativity, was also very witty:

“The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”

The point of this is that technological innovation has hard limits. We will never break the law of gravity*, we will never impose a force on an object without it imposing an equal and opposite force on us and, most importantly, we will never create energy from nothing. This is particularly troubling for Simon’s theory, as each human being on the planet requires a certain minimum amount of energy to live, and still more to live with any degree of comfort or happiness. The Earth only has so much energy available to us, and if we keep using it up at our present rate, then we are eventually going to reach a state where no amount of technological cleverness can save us from a fairly miserable state of existence.

Technology is useful, but we cannot rely on it for a long-term solution to our resource shortages. Sooner or later, it won’t be there to bail us out. So let’s start conserving the resources available to us sooner rather than later. Let’s take steps to make sure that peak travel is the real deal.

*No, the Wright Brothers did not engineer around the law of gravity. They simply found a way to work within it.