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Monday, July 03, 2006

Failed Gods, Easter Island, and Peak Oil

On Easter Island, the inhabitants used much of their forest in a project to build and place great stone figures – images, we may suppose, of Gods. More formally, they invested labor and resources in a project they thought would produce a return of some sort. Did they think their gods would save them as they cut down the last tree? Did they suppose some miracle would bring the fish closer to the island, removing the need for large boats? What could they have been thinking as they squandered their remaining resources erecting ever bigger, ever costlier stone statues?

Could we fall into the same trap? When the subject of Peak Oil comes up, the common response is “Oh, they’ll think of something”. One might be inclined to wonder whom this “they” might be. The thought process is remarkably similar to what an islander might have thought had he said, “Oh, the gods will do something”. Arguably, science and technology are our civilization’s new gods, complete with an extensive priesthood of scientists and great temples, also known as research universities.

As Peak Oil develops, will our society become more frenzied in our worship? Will we sacrifice more resources to persuade the gods of research to bless us with a discovery that will solve our woes? Is our faith in exponentially growing technology misplaced? What if there are limits to technology?

Mr. Jonathan Huebner, in his paper titled “A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation”, available as a PDF at http://www.uri.edu/artsci/ecn/starkey/201-590_bulletinboard/Huebner.pdf considers the possibility that innovation is slowing. Further, there are limits to what we can discover. One of Dr. Huebner’s considerations is there may be economic limits. This becomes problematic if GDP shrinks because of energy shortages. Another possibility considered is that we may be approaching the limits of the human mind. Dr. Huebner estimates that we may have already discovered 85% of the innovations we will ever discover.

What are the implications for our future? If innovation fails us, we will have no technological salvation from the effects of Peak Oil. Still worse, one of the primary drivers of economic growth will have failed – perhaps concurrently with Peak Oil.

Will future historians look back at our efforts to create fusion reactors and nanotech in the same way we view the Easter Islander’s gods? No one can say for sure; but the implications give one pause.

2 comments:

Will said...

We are discussing why some peak oil theorists think that the only answer is to cut economic growth on the Cut Oil Imports Message Board.

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