Friday, December 24, 2010

The Efficiency Dilemma

David Owen, Annals of Environmentalism, “The Efficiency Dilemma,” The New Yorker, December 20, 2010, p. 78
Read first few paragraphs here.

David Owen describes Jevons’ paradox and its modern  generalization due to  Khazzoom and Brookes.    He ventilates the  disagreement between mainstream and ecological economists about the validity and applicability of the paradox. 

In Jevons’ concise nineteenth century summarization the “paradox” is that

“It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

The appearance of this article in the New Yorker  is  useful, given the widespread ignorance of Jevons’ paradox among activists for sustainability. Owen gives full time to the deprecation of the paradox  by mainstream economists, but quotes extremely pointed commentary by ecological economists on the massive evidence that the paradox is in fact responsible for most of the structure of the current global economy.

Owen also refers to the further generalization by some ecological economists to the effect that improved economic productivity of any good will lead to increased total consumption of the good.

These efficiency theorems are widely ignored by activists and visionaries who like to think of efficiency as a royal road to sustainability. For them, it has the great advantage of being uncontroversial, of wrong footing their opponents. Who can reasonably oppose efficient use of the world’s precious resources?

But increasing the efficiency of any good increases its economic productivity, and therefore increases its total consumption. The pursuit of efficiency to help the environment is, therefore,  entirely counterproductive unless it is accompanied by the pursuit of independent limits on total consumption.  Unfortunately, such limits are extremely controversial, and cannot be advocated without having also to oppose the ethos of  all modern polities: that economic growth is indispensable.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

"Overshoot" and "Unsustainability"

I've noticed that "overshoot" is used very sloppily when referring to humanity's presence in the world. It's almost impossible to tell what a given author means precisely by it. I believe that many authors don't mean anything precisely by it.

Using "overshoot" as a precise metaphor for the approach of an underdamped system to equilibrium, as originally intended by those who introduced the metaphor, would mean that if a variable were in overshoot it would certainly return to a lower value. As with many terms that become popular, the precise metaphor has been forgotten, to the impoverishment of the language.

In a precise use of the metaphor, to say the human population was in overshoot would be to mean that the human population was fated to have its numbers reduced, one way or another, with humanity having only the options of arranging that reduction or allowing nature to do so. The system state of humanity that is named by this use of "overshoot" is an important one. It is unfortunate that we are losing the ability to name this state unambiguously.

Some authors now say "humanity is in overshoot" when they mean simply that "humanity is living unsustainably". This conflation destroys a useful distinction in language by making the only term we have for overshoot, namely "overshoot", into an impressive sounding synonym for a perfectly adequate term that does not need a synomym, "living unsustainably". Simply put, to live unsustainably is to risk entering overshoot, and to be fated to enter overshoot unless a suitable lifestyle change is instituted. To be in overshoot is to be living unsustainably and to have lost any possibility of returning to sustainability without reducing the number of living people. I have found that many people who claim to be interested in the ecological fate of humanity do not even understand that there is a difference between living unsustainably and being in overshoot, because it has never crossed their mind that a state of overshoot, in its original meaning, is possible.

The most interesting thing about the state of overshoot of the human population is that it is impossible to know if we are in that state or even whether whether we are close to being in it. The impossibility of detecting overshoot is due to our inability to distinguish the difference between the consuming the fruits of natural capital and consuming the natural capital itself. I have argued elsewhere ( that this attribute of overshoot, in combination with attributes of current global culture, dooms humanity to enter overshoot. I believe the argument is compelling. I also believe that we are already in overshoot, although the argument just mentioned indicates that a compelling argument for being in overshoot is unlikely until an ongoing compression of humanity's numbers is manifest.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cassandra's choice

Consider Cassandra. She knows that almost everything about the way we live is incapable of being sustained. She knows that this civilization must be radically changed, and soon, if it is to continue. The problematique was what Aurelio Peccei called the set of problems that inform her unwelcome knowledge.

If Cassandra pushes our awareness of the problematique without offering solutions for it, she will often be held in mild contempt by almost everyone. (The word "whining" is often spoken in this circumstance.) But if she offers effective solutions, which are necessarily radical, people who don't share her perception of the problematique will often assume that she offers her solutions not because she thinks they are necessary responses to an unavoidable problem, but because she will get some payoff from the solutions that they won't, or they will assume that she desires the harm her solutions would necessarily do them. These assumptions can lead to their hating her. Disingenuous opponents will assert that she desires the harm her solutions would necessarily cause.

Cassandra gets to choose which reaction she prefers: being a source of annoyance and an object of mild, sometimes amused, contempt, or being completely ignored by most and hated by some. For problems for which there are non-radical solutions, her dilemma would not be this severe, and might not exist at all. For the problematique, however, for which the only effective solutions are radical, and always will be radical, her dilemma is excruciating.

Both strategies, diagnosing only, or also proposing solutions, are ineffective in changing minds about the problematique, but offering solutions is much the more ineffective of the two strategies. Any effective solution must assume a lot about the problematique, and be radical. Those who see harm for themselves in a solution will dismiss it without considering it further, as soon as they detect a detail of an assumption they don't agree with. This is a crippling disadvantage of offering effective solutions for the problematique, since effective solutions would harm almost everyone.

If Cassandra restricts herself to diagnosing the problematique, she will have the advantage of having to make many fewer assumptions. She can make powerful arguments to deprecate solutions that arise from wishful thinking, and to deprecate solutions that are insufficiently radical to be effective. But she will annoy far more people and be far more generally disliked for pushing us to acknowledge the hazards of the problematique than if she offers her own effective solutions for it -- solutions that will not be threatening because they can be easily ridiculed and ignored.

By restricting herself to pushing our awareness of the problematique, Cassandra will change more minds than by offering solutions for it. But she will change only a few minds, and she will attract general disapproval.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Green Building in Ottawa, etc.

Well, I went to a meeting yesterday at which Ottawa City staff and consultants presented experience of the City's green building program. The presentation was mostly about pursuing LEED Silver certification in a number of new municipal buildings.

The presentation and discussion depressed me. I would love to find a way to be involved practically in a response to our desperate ecological situation, but most Green projects make me crazy. As is common with Green projects, everyone in the room seemed smart and competent, but the meeting was about pushing deck chairs to the high side of the Titanic to prevent it from capsizing. This reaction is unfair, of course. People do their best in the situation they find themselves in.

Are community Green projects to achieve concrete practical results completely useless? Nope. If a Green project saves money, or prolongs lives, or improves the chances for survival of a bit of biological diversity, it is useful, in a limited sense. Undoubtedly, the City of Ottawa Green Building program is useful in this limited sense. Unfortunately, the achievements of such projects will be swept away or will seem unimportant in the circumstances of our near future. Ecological catastrophe and an involuntary compression of humanity cannot be avoided or significantly mitigated by any accumulation of "practical" projects -- projects that can be conducted without assuming that growth must end.

Business-as-usual and overpopulation will consume most of the world, then end. Growth will end. Its end can be significantly mitigated only by projects that anticipate that end -- projects, for example, to bring a voluntary end to local growth.

Business-as-usual needs to be overturned before nature blows it away. Incremental changes acceptable to the enthusiasts of business-as-usual will never achieve the overturning. Given this reality, the imperative of really useful projects is not to get things done, but to get things understood. Projects to create an understanding of the inevitable consequences of the end of growth provide the only faint hope for mitigation. We need "impractical" Green projects, quixotic Green projects, projects whose "practical" goals, if any, are secondary to communicating a tragic sense of the coming reduction of our place in the world.

David Delaney, Ottawa, July 13, 2007

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The converse of Adam Smith

Freedom of economic choice is made possible by physical circumstances that allow economic growth. It can persist only where individuals, in seeking their individual advantage, produce in their collective striving more each year of what people want. When physical circumstances dictate that economies must shrink indefinitely, there will be less each year of what people want, regardless of individual or collective striving. The majority will no longer benefit from the success of advantage seeking by individuals.

Freedom of economic choice cannot survive the coming transition to a permanently contracting economy. The arrangements that will eliminate freedom of economic choice will almost certainly eliminate other freedoms as well.

Friday, October 07, 2005

On the possibility of prediction

It is often said that predictions are not useful because reality is too complex to predict. Here’s an example of a simple system with completely unpredictable behavior, but a completely predictable fate.

It is obviously not possible to predict the detailed behavior of complex systems. Even simple mechanical systems can have completely unpredictable behavior. One such system is a popular executive desk toy. The toy consists of one magnet that is free to swing on a dangling string or rod, and several additional magnets fixed motionless below it. The fixed magnets are arranged to repel the lower end of the pendulum magnet, which is impelled by the force of gravity to return to the center of the array of fixed magnets. When the executive pulls the pendulum to one side and releases it, a marvelously complicated and unpredictable series of motions ensues. What is not obvious except to those who already know why, is that the motions of this toy are unpredictable in principle, even though we understand completely the rules that govern those motions, and how to compute the trajectory of the pendulum. No matter how precisely we measure the shape and strength of the magnetic fields, no matter how precisely we measure the initial position, direction, and speed of the pendulum, any computer program that computes the trajectory of the swinging magnet according to those initial measurements will predict a trajectory that diverges wildly from the actual trajectory within the first second or two of the several minutes it will take the motion to die down. The motion of the system is said to be “sensitive to initial conditions”. A system that is sensitive to initial conditions hugely magnifies the effects of arbitrarily small errors in the physical measurements of the initial conditions. Two sets of initial conditions that are not exactly the same, but which differ only by arbitrarily small amounts, produce radically different trajectories within a second or two of movement.

To drive the point home, consider that by some cosmic accident, we obtain the initial position, speed, and direction of the pendulum with perfect accuracy, and that the word length of our computer is much longer than sufficient to specify these measurements perfectly. Even in this case, the computed trajectory will differ wildly from the computed one within seconds, because the intermediate positions calculated by the computer will not be capable of perfect representation within the computer – the computer will have to round its computations, introducing tiny errors. The computer will also have to round its representation of the magnetic field at intermediate positions of the pendulum. Because of sensitivity to initial conditions, even the smallest rounding error will be hugely magnified, with consequent failure to approximate the trajectory.
Now suppose I start the pendulum swinging in a box that I hold several feet above the floor. I close the box immediately after starting the pendulum. A couple of seconds after starting the pendulum, I cannot know its position and speed, even with the aid of the most powerful computer. But if I let go of the box, I can be perfectly confident that the box will be on the floor in a second or so, and the pendulum with it.

Conclusion: macrostates of "unpredictable" systems may be easy to predict.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Deffeyes's Reprise

I have just (July 9, 2005) finished reading Kenneth Deffeyes's new book "Beyond oil: The view from Hubbert's Peak" (2005) .

I almost didn't buy this book. I assumed it would not add much to what I had learned from Deffeyes's earlier book on the same subject, "Hubbert's Peak: The impending world oil shortage". What a mistake that would have been!

"Hubbert's Peak" remains an extremely valuable book for those who want to understand *why* Hubbert's hypothesis may be correct, but "Beyond Oil" is much better at explaining the hypothesis and showing us that the data supports it overwhelmingly. The great new value in "Beyond Oil" is to be found in Chapter 3, The Hubbert Method.

In "Hubbert's Peak", Deffeyes presented only qualitative and graphical descriptions of Hubbert's theory in the main text. He describes what the theory means and why it was important. Reader's may believe him because the rest of the book makes his credentials unmistakable: Professor Emeritus of Geology at Princeton, obvious encyclopedic knowledge of petroleum geology, 50 years in the oil business or consulting to it, friendship and collegial association with Hubbert himself. But his editor did not let him put any equations in the main text. When he does get to the equations in the notes at the back, their presentation is too concise, they require too much math knowledge for most readers, and lack the associated explanation that would make their relationship to the theory easy to understand, even for many readers who have the necessary math knowledge. It's all there, but you have to be committed and sophisticated to dig it out.

In this new presentation, Deffeyes has performed a brilliant act of creation in constructing a quantitative explanation of Hubbert's theory that can be completely understood by anyone who can read graphs and do elementary high school algebra. (The success of Hubbert's Peak must have persuaded his editors to let him put a few equations in the text of this book.) Instead of understanding merely the results of Hubbert's theory, and accepting them on Deffeyes's authority, you can understand, completely, the sequence of thought that leads from data to theory and back to data to check the support for the theory. The effect is compelling. Hubbert did not seem to understand his own theory this clearly until a decade of so after his early publications in the 1950s, and he never explained it simply. His early arguments depended on educated guesses about the total volume of oil that could eventually be recovered from the oil provinces in question. To this day, his detractors criticize the theory incorrectly on the assumption that it depends on a separate and independent estimate of the size of the ultimately recoverable resource in order to predict the date of the peak of production. Hubbert removed this dependence, but his papers are apparently so hard to read that those who are looking for a way to refute the theory miss the improvement. The revised theory *generates* a robust estimate of the ultimately recoverable resource from historical production data. As history approaches the predicted peak, as now, the prediction of the peak becomes utterly compelling.

Deffeyes's renders Hubbert's theory transparently clear. It's essence is a guess, verified by appropriate analysis of historical production data, that the rate of oil production has depended and will depend mainly and linearly on the fraction of the ultimately recoverable resource that remains to be produced. The maximum possible production rate at any level of cumulative production is proportional to the product of the remaining fraction and the cumulative production. This dependence on the fraction of oil remaining is manifested by an ingeniously selected plot of the historical production rate data and the historical cumulative production data.

The theory's disregard of other factors on which production must depend, such as the price of oil, technological improvements in extraction, accidents of history, and geopolitical incentives and constraints, infuriates the detractors of the theory. The answer is that the production rate does indeed depend on these other factors, but the data demonstrates compellingly that it depends on them much less than it depends on the fraction of the ultimate total that remains to be extracted. The reasons for this dominance of the single factor is well understood by geologists. "Hubbert's Peak" explains this dominance much better than "Beyond Oil", so you'll need both books to argue against committed detractors. But anyone who takes the trouble to first understand Hubbert's hypothesis and what the data says about it will be looking to these explanations mainly to find reasons for the obvious empirical truth of the hypothesis.

Economists (and those who have been stupefied by economists' assertions) do not accept the hypothesis that the maximum production rate depends mainly on the remaining fraction, even though historical data provides overwhelmingly powerful support for the hypothesis and geological reasoning explains this support. I am convinced that the economists have the mistaken impression that Hubbert's theory is merely qualitative and descriptive and as such cannot defeat their own simplistic qualitative ideas about resource quality pyramids and supply and demand. Everyone who gives evidence of actually understanding Hubbert's theory seems to accept it. Those who repudiate it seem always to give evidence of not understanding it, or even of not caring to understand it.

Much loud opinion misrepresents Hubbert's theory, or gives it a status roughly equivalent to that of, say, the opinions of Wall Street analysts. It seems likely that Deffeyes saw that his "Hubbert's Peak" had not produced the popular understanding he had hoped for, that Hubbert is sound science. Thank goodness he has taken this second shot in "Beyond Oil".