Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Oh good God people are stupid

A perfect example of how a little bit of economics knowledge can be a dangerous and very embarrassing thing.
As MIT professor Morris Adelman put it, “The great oil shortage is like the horizon, always receding as one moves toward it.” But Adelman's is a fundamental insight of economics, a science that considers human behavior and so is a better tool for analyzing scarcity than is geology...

But that model doesn't reflect the real-world use of resources at all. Take copper: Humanity has been mining copper for millennia, but even after all that time, the pattern still doesn't resemble a bell curve. Instead, production keeps increasing: The world mined 291,000 tons in 1852, 3 million tons in 1935 and 15.3 million tons in 2006.
Actually, those numbers suggest that the growth curve for copper extraction is already flattening out, and the author doesn't even realize it: copper extraction increased by 10 times from 1852-1935, but from 1935-2006 only increased five times -- when the global population tripled, and the global GDP increased by, what, two orders of magnitude? In the next fifty years, will it only increase 2.5 times? Will it increase at all? Will it fall?

And of course, whether you talk about copper or what, peak oil quite clearly describes the behaviour of past oil provinces, most obviously the US.

Meanwhile, the Energy Working Group says peak oil was in 2006. (PDF) This is the same group that has previously argued that peak coal will be in the 2030s, and that peak uranium will be in 2050ish. Basically, if we don't move to an all-renewable economy we're screwed.

1 comment:

NonyNony said...

Here's another little factoid that makes a comparison of copper versus oil truly stupid:

Copper can be recycled once you've used it. Oil cannot (barring the case of oil used to form plastics - but oil used as energy cannot be recycled). Once we decide that copper is more valuable to build microcircuits with instead of using it for plumbing, copper pipes in our homes can be ripped out, replaced with something else, and the copper can be sold. This is going on all over the world right now - including in the US where out here in the Midwest you usually run across a few stories a year of thieves breaking into an abandoned home to steal the copper pipes and sell on the open market.

It's true that we may never run out of copper - but that's because we can always take the "wasted" copper and use it again. We can't do the same with oil - once it's used it's never coming back.