"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Monday, March 02, 2009

"I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion ... the spirit or attitude toward the facts is different in religion from what it is in science. The uncertainty that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith." - Richard Feynman, The Meaning of It All

***

From Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years / Vaclav Smil:


On "peak oil" and its resemblance to doomsday prophesying:

"A small army of experts has disseminated an alarmist notion of imminent global oil exhaustion followed by economic implosion, massive unemployment, breadlines, homelessness, and the catastrophic end of industrial civilization (Ivanhoe 1995; Campbell 1997; Laherrère 1997; Deffeyes 2001). Their alarmist arguments mix incontestable facts with caricatures I complex realities, and they exclude anything that does not fit preconceived conclusions in order to issue obituaries of modern civilization.

Their conclusions are based on a lack of nuanced understanding of the human quest for energy. They disregard the role of prices, historical perspectives, and human inventiveness and adaptability. Their interpretations are anathema to any critical, balanced scientific evaluation, but, precisely for that reason, they attract mass media attention. These predictions are just the latest installments in a long history of failed forecasts but their advocates argue that this time the circumstances are really different and the forecasts will not fail. In order to believe that, one has to ignore a multitude of facts and possibilities that readily counteract their claims. And, most important, there is no reason that even an early peak to global oil production should trigger any catastrophic events.

The modern tradition of concerns about an impending decline in resource extraction began in 1865 with William Stanley Jevons, a leading economist of the Victorian era, who concluded that falling coal output must spell the end of Britain’s national greatness because it is “of course . . . useless to think of substituting any other kind of fuel for coal” (Jevons 1865, 183). Substitute oil for coal in that sentence, and you have the erroneous foundations of the present doomsday sentiments about oil. There is no need to elaborate on how wrong Jevons was. The Jevonsian view was reintroduced by Flubbert (1969) with his 'correct timing' of U.S. oil production, leading those who foresaw an early end to oil reserves to consider Hubbert’s Gaussian exhaustion curve with the reverence reserved by Biblical fundamentalists for Genesis.

In reality, the Hubbert model is simplistic, based on rigidly predetermined reserves, and ignoring any innovative advances or price shifts. Not surprisingly, it has repeatedly failed (fig. 3.3). Hubbert himself put the peak of global oil extraction between 1993 and 2000. The Workshop on Alternative Energy Strategies (WAES 1977) forecast the peak as early as 1990 and most likely between 1994 and 1997; the CIA (1979) believed that global output must fall within a decade; BP (1979) predicted world production would peak in 1985"


On the inability of alternative fuels to meet our needs:

"There are five major reasons that the transition from fossil to nonfossil supply will be much more difficult than is commonly realized: scale of the shift; lower energy density of replacement fuels; substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction; intermittence of renewable flows; and uneven distribution of renewable energy resources...

The magnitude of the needed substitution also runs into some important resource restrictions. At 122 PW the enormous flux of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s ground is nearly 4 OM greater than the world’s TPES of nearly 13 TW in 2005 (fig. 3.4). But this is the only renewable flux convertible to electricity that is considerably larger than the current TPFS; no other renewable energy resource can provide more than 10 TW. Generous estimates of technically feasible maxima are less than 10 TW for wind, less than 5 TW for ocean waves, less than 2 TW for hydroelectricity, and less than 1 TW for geothermal and tidal energy and for ocean currents. Moreover, the actual economically and environmentally acceptable rates may be only small fractions of these technically feasible totals...

As the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) demonstrated, essential ecosystemic services (without which there can be no viable economies) have already been modified, reduced, and compromised to a worrisome degree, and any massive, intensive monocultural plantings of energy crops could only accelerate their decline...

Claims that simple and cost-effective biomass could provide 50% of the world’s TPES by 2050 or that 1—2 Gt of crop residues can he burned every year (Breeze 2004) would put the human appropriation of phytomass close to or above 50% of terrestrial photosynthesis. This would further reduce the phytomass available for microbes and wild heterotrophs, eliminate or irreparably weaken many ecosystemic services, and reduce the recycling of organic matter in agriculture...

The transition to tossil fuels introduced fuels with superior energy densities, but the coming shift will move us in an opposite, less desirable direction. Ordinary bituminous coal (20—23 GJ/t) contains 30%—50% more energy than air-dried wood (15—17 GJ/t); the best hard coals (29—30 GJ/t) are nearly twice as energy-dense as wood; and liquid fuels refined trom crude oil (42—44 GJ/t) have nearly three times higher energy density. With this transition we are facing the reverse challenge: replacing crude oil-derived fuels with less energy dense hiofuels. Moreover, this transition would also require 1,000-fold and often 10,000-fold larger areas under crops than the land claimed by oil field infrastructures, and shifting from coal—fired to wind-generated electricity would require at best 10 times and often 100 times more space (fig. 3.5) (Smil 2008)...

Even if the most productive solar alternative (Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane at 0.45 W/m2) could be replicated throughout the tropics, the aggregate land requirements for producing transportation ethanol would reach about 550 Mha, slightly more than one-third of the world’s cultivated land, or nearly all the agricultural land in the tropics. There is no need to comment on what this would mean for global food production. Consequently, global transportation fuel demand cannot be filled by even the most productive alcohol fermentation. Corn ethanol’s power density of 0.22 W/m2 means that about 390 Mha, or slightly more than twice the country’s entire cultivated area, would be needed to satisfy the U.S. demand for liquid transportation fuel."


On why China will not become the world superpower:

"Postwar Germany has faced the horrors of the Third Reich, and it has worked in many ways to atone for its transgressions. Russia began to face its terrible Stalinist past when Khrushchev first denounced his former master (in 1956), opened the gates of the gulag, and had the dictator’s corpse rcnioved front the Red Square mausoleum. But the portrait of Mao still presides over the Tian’anmen, hundreds of his statues still dot China’s cities, and Maoism remains the paramount ideology of the ruling party. This amnesia is hardly a solid foundation for preaching moral superiority. And as for serving as a social and behavioral model, China—despite (or perhaps because of) its ancient culture, and in a sharp contrast with the United States—has little soft-power appeal to be a modern superpower of expressions, fashions, and ideas.

Its language can be mastered only with long-term devotion, and even then there are very few foreigners (and fewer and fewer Chinese) who are equally at case with the classical idiom and spoken contemporary dialects. Its contemporary popular music is not eagerly downloaded by millions of teenagers around the world, and how many Westerners have sat through complete performances of classical Beijing operas? China’s sartorial innovations are not instantly copied by all those who wish to be hip. Westerners, Muslims, or Africans cannot name a single Chinese celebrity. And who wants to move, given a chance, to Wuhan or Shenyang? Who would line up, if such an option were available, for the Chinese equivalent of a green card?

In the realm of pure ideas, there is (to chose a single iconic example) no Chinese Steven Jobs, an entrepreneur epitomizing boldness, risk taking, arrogance. prescience, creativity, and flexibility, a combination emblematic of what is best about the U.S. innovative drive. And it is simply unimaginable that the turgid text oi the country’s Communist Constitution would he ever read and admired as widely as is that hope-inspiring 1787 document, the U.S. Constitution, whose stirring opening, I assume, you know by heart. Here is the first article of China’s 1982 constitution:

People’s Republic of China is a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants. The socialist system is the basic system of the People’s Republic of China. Sabotage of the socialist system by any organisation or individual is prohibited.


Those who laud the new China might re-read this a few times. And anybody familiar with today’s China knows how eagerly the Chinese people themselves imitate U.S. ways even as they profess nationalistic, anti-American fervor."


On why Europe will not become the world superpower:

"Several recent publications have been quite euphoric about Europe’s prospects, leaving little room for doubts about the continent’s future trajectory. The director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform predicts, astonishingly, that Europe will economically dominate the twenty-first century (Leonard 2004). The former London bureau chief of the Washington Post maintains that the rise of the United States of Europe will end U.S. supremacy (Reid 2004). And Rifkin (2004) is impressed by the Continent’s high economic productivity, the grand visions of its leaders, their risk-sensitive policies and reassuring secularism, and the ample leisure and high quality of life provided by caring social democracies.

Such writings make me wonder whether the authors ever perused the continent’s statistical yearbooks, read the letters to editors in more than one language, checked public opinion polls, walked through the postindustrial wastelands and ghettos of Birmingham, Rotterdam, or Milan, or simply tried to live as ordinary Europeans do."
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