Thursday, February 25, 2010

When the wells run dry

I saw a commercial for the natural gas industry that discussed all the great things natural gas does. As an industry, it employs x million people. It's used to power our homes, run our factories, and produce our drugs and plastics. After discussing all the cool things gas can be used for, a pretty woman tells the audience to remember all the great benefits next time a natural gas pocket is found and drilled. I think the idea was that rather than worry about the environment, consider the positives of exploiting this resource.

But for whatever reason I found myself visualizing an alternative version of the commercial, where instead of saying "hey, isn't it great we can make drugs and fertilizer out of hydrocarbons?" the woman was instead reminding me of the products our grandchildren are going to have trouble creating. "Remember when we didn't have to turn food stuffs into hydrocarbons and then into drugs, but could instead eat our food and drill for our drugs? Look at how warm that house is! It's burning material built up over millions of years and consumed in a couple centuries! Next time a natural gas pocket is found and drilled, think of all the future generations who won't get a chance to use this easy source of energy."

I've always felt like economic theory fails to address the future. There's plenty of arguments for how to fairly allocate resources, but they always seem to deal with the current generation. "If we can pump 80 million barrels of oil a day, how should we distribute that energy between each nation?" But what about conserving it for another generation? Even if we reject the socialist idea that everybody deserves equal resources, how can using up a resource before someone's born be meritocratic? The market can't account for people and usages that don't exist at the moment.

One argument is that in the long run any non-renewable resource is unsustainable, so there's no morale imperative to share the windfall: if we're careful we could make easily accessible oil last 500 years, if we go crazy 15, but either way sooner or later we run out, and so on average people will have to live without it. But within a fixed time line isn't it morally superior to share the resource rather than use it up in our own lifetime?

Another argument is that resource usage leads to more sustainable living. The industrialized world has fewer children, and technology increases efficiency, so if consuming nonrenewable resources moves us quicker to a modernized, efficient world we've acted correctly. But it's hard to believe that cars, nitrogen-heavy industrial farming or youtube are having a huge impact on technological efficiency. Indeed, as peak oil threatens to appear that line of thinking suggests we should rapidly push consumption onto the third world to get over this theoretical hump, but that certainly isn't happening.

I think partially, at least in the western world, there's a great deal of technological optimism. We believe that in 300 years people will have solved the problems we're facing today. Our great grandchildren will be flying the void between the stars, living for millenia and enjoying the service of robots. If you believe this, it's less imperative we consider the impact of our actions on future generations, as the assumption is they'll be better off anyways, or that they wouldn't even deign to use as dirty a fuel as oil if it still existed.

I'm not sure. I am optimistic about the future, and the cynic in me believes that we won't move towards a sustainable civilization until easy energy is consumed, so speeding up consumption just brings us closer to whatever future is in store for humanity. But it also seems like technology can be maddeningly elusive. Will we really construct thousands of acres of solar panels in time? What if that turns out to have some hidden flaw, some even more dangerous effect on the environment. America is consuming 20 million barrels of oil a day. If we don't find alternatives, what will it mean when that goes away? I can't even conceptualize what 20 million barrels of oil a day buys you, how we'd handle having to give up all the niceties of civilization.

Ultimately, I find it more plausible to hope for the rapid development of futuristic technology then to believe the planet will voluntarily cut its consumption to a tiny fraction of our current usage. As long as easy energy exists, the desire to consume it and the fear somebody else will if you don't will drive us to use it. I wish I knew how to amend economic theory to properly operate in a world of limited resources, but I've yet to figure it out. On the plus side, we've still got plenty of radioactive elements in the ground to push this question on to future generations.

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