Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Seductive examples

Over at History News Network, essayist Eric Zencey asks what is for him a rhetorical question -- "Is Industrial Civilization a Pyramid Scheme?" -- and gives a much shorter version of Jared Diamond's argument in Collapse:

Oil gave us a once-in-the-history-of-the-planet chance to build a sustainable industrial infrastructure, one that would provide a high standard of living by running on current solar income rather than by drawing down the planetary stock of capital, and so far, we've blown it. We've been like Ponzi, meeting current expenses out of capital rather than true income. Like him, we've built a system that has to grow or it will crash; and like him, we've built a system that cannot grow forever, and so it must crash.

Many environmentalists are hypnotized by this argument and Zencey's example (the 1920s Ponzi scheme), or Diamond's examples (Easter Island, Greenland). It helps to notice that there are other examples: in my review of Diamond, I pointed to Stanley Jevons, who had much the same kind of thing to say about coal in England in the 1860s. Zencey may be right, but he is not obviously right. He doesn't confront the counterexamples and explain why this time is different.

In general, any argument that seems absolutely right and unanswerable probably depends on your being obsessed with a seductive example.


prb said...

Heh! Well put.

cinncinatus said...

You mention counterexamples; I avidly followed the link, and found your review of Diamond in which you strongly imply that Jevons' fears about the decline of Britain as its coal runs out were shown to be baseless: "Britain's imperial power and standard of living survived this 'crisis,'...because...they [the English] were saved by the serendipitous discovery of oil." Oil is the fourth major carbon pool that humans have exploited (soil, wood, coal, oil). We've reached a global Hubbert's Peak; I don't see another carbon pool with oil's EROI anywhere about, awaiting our exploitation.

So I can't accept that the discovery of oil demonstrates that Jevons was wrong (any more than I think the failure to anticipate the Green Revolution--in which petroleum is converted into food--proved Malthus wrong). Jevons, like Malthus, was wrong in his lifetime, because of a failure to anticipate the exploitation of a then-unknown carbon pool. But neither man will prove to have been wrong in ecological time--which (as Diamond shows) is the time scale in which civilizations live or die.

Harold said...

cinncinatus: that's exactly what Jevons could have said with regard to coal. How do you know you don't suffer from his failure of vision too?

My real problem with Diamond is not his conclusion but the fact that he doesn't even mention this kind of counterexample. The case of Jevons doesn't prove that we can go on as we are forever. But it does prove that not all stories are like Easter Island, and challenges us to think beyond that one seductive example.

Diamond's omission of Jevons' case works as a way of keeping his audience fixated, and thinking that there's only one possibly right answer. But it is intellectually dishonest.