By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl

Vaclav Smil is an intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable expert on a wide range of scientific and social topics related to energy. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a respected author of many books.

In this September 2015 talk at McGill University he touches on many important topics including:

  • We are a fossil fuel civilization and will remain so for a long time.
  • Over the last 25 years we have reduced our dependence on fossil energy by only 3%.
  • Power density is critical when comparing energy alternatives.
  • Renewable energy is not renewable and does not have the density to replace fossil energy.
  • Green products are not green.
  • Nuclear energy is dead. What’s left is being developed in the wrong places.
  • CO2 capture is not a solution for climate change.
  • Developed countries do not use energy rationally. Canada (and the U.S.) are the worst offenders in the world.
  • Food and energy have never been cheaper and we should expect to pay a lot more in the future.
  • The solution to reducing waste and energy consumption is higher prices.
  • Innovation is an overvalued and exaggerated topic. All of the critical technologies civilization depends on were invented over 100 years ago.
  • There are more important issues to worry about than peak oil including water scarcity, money printing, low interest rates, and high youth unemployment.
  • Most big events in history were unexpected. We can expect surprises in the future.
  • Reasons for hope include the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, and the fact that we can have comfortable lives at a much lower level of consumption.

I agree with almost all of Smil’s points except:

  • Smil believes we are unable to accurately predict the effect of rising CO2 and therefore he is not worried about climate change. I’ve done enough reading of climate science to be confident we should be very worried.  While we are not able to precisely predict the outcome, the probable outcome of our current path ranges from dangerous to catastrophic.
  • Smil believes that with fracking and other technology improvements we will have plentiful oil for at least a hundred years. I think we will have energy shortages within 10 years. Our different views are probably rooted in different assumptions about the link between energy and the economy. Smil thinks any oil shortages will increase the price of oil thus enabling new and more expensive sources. I think rising oil prices will reduce worker productivity and incomes which will make more expensive oil unaffordable and therefore supply will reduce in an escalating feedback loop as inexpensive oil is depleted. I also think that oil depletion and consequent rising production costs are the main cause of rising debt, money printing, and low interest rates that Smil worries about.

This lecture is a must watch for people seeking to understand the issues that really matter to our experiment with civilization.

video review: Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil by Richard Smith


I’ve watched a lot of good documentaries but this one produced in 2007 by Richard Smith for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is among the very best.

Usually, the more important a non-fiction work is, the more scientific disciplines the author integrates into a coherent story. In this case, Richard Smith does a remarkable job of weaving geology, chemistry, biology, thermodynamics, climate, history, and economics into a fascinating story that follows a carbon atom as it moves about the planet over the last 200 million years.

I often marvel at, and wonder how we were blessed with such a large quantity of crude oil which we have used to build an amazing civilization. This documentary does a very nice job of explaining how crude oil was formed 160 million years ago on a hot greenhouse planet with near dead and toxic oceans. The photosynthetic bacteria that converted CO2 and sunlight into the carbohydrates that later became crude oil acted to remove CO2 from the atmosphere thus cooling the planet and returning it to a healthy environment for complex oxygen breathing life like ourselves.

Humans are now reversing this process by burning fossil carbon and returning the CO2 to the atmosphere which may return the planet to an environment incompatible with civilization. Unless, ironically, we run out of oil first, which will also cause our civilization to collapse.

What’s different this time is that humans are doing in a hundred years what took geology thousands or millions of years in the past. This speed makes the outcome more difficult to predict but common sense suggests it’s unlikely to be good.

Given that 10 years have elapsed since the documentary was produced it’s a credit to Richard Smith that it’s still relevant and accurate, although it’s a concern to see how far we have unraveled in 10 years with melting poles, record temperatures, stalled economic growth, zero interest rates, money printing, failing oil companies, and global social unrest.

It’s also a concern, but expected in light of Varki’s theory on denial, that we collectively have not yet acknowledged our predicament, let alone taken any steps to make the future less bad.

Highly recommended!

If you’d like a higher quality version than what’s available on YouTube it has been recently ripped in HD and available as a torrent here.



Bottleneck or Barrier?

Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition theory says that awareness of mortality is a barrier to evolving an extended theory of mind and this barrier can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of reality.

Only one species has crossed this barrier and it used its extended theory of mind to take over the planet, while denying the consequences of its success.

One prediction of Varki’s theory is that all 7 billion humans will have descended from the individual that managed to cross the barrier.

Here is a short video that explains why it is generally accepted that all 7 billion humans descended from one woman about 200,000 years ago.

The usual explanation is that humans experienced a bottleneck caused probably by a changing climate.

I think Varki’s barrier explanation is more consistent with the evidence.

By Ajit Varki: Mind Over Reality Transition: The Evolution of Human Mortality Denial

My hero and one of the originators of the most important idea since Darwin gave this talk on March 3, 2017 in which he explains the Mind Over Reality theory that he and Danny Brower developed and discussed in their book and which underpins this blog.

Dr. Varki, being a humble and cautious scientist, does not amplify the implications of his theory so I will do it for him here because I have no reputation to protect.

The Mind Over Reality theory explains the:

After reflecting on this list for a few minutes, and assuming that in time Varki’s theory is proven to be correct, you may begin to appreciate why I think this theory is THE most important idea for understanding our origin, our special place in the universe, and our destructive behaviors that threaten our existence. 

A pleasant fact I learned from the talk is that despite having a solemn demeanor Dr. Varki has a killer sense of humor.

Here is the abstract for the talk:

Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior––traits that should be maladaptive when they first appear as hard-wired features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have independently emerged several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above.  Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have then evolved an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier“.  This barrier is claimed to arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM.  Such individuals would then observe deaths of others whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into an understanding of personal mortality.  The conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction).  The barrier would have persisted until hominin ancestors broke through via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (Reality Denial and Extended ToM) combined in the same individuals, to allow a “Mind over Reality Transition”. Once the barrier was broken, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes. This theory also provides a unifying evolutionary explanation for other unusual features of humans, including recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no hybrids. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the theory fits with numerous facts about humans and human origins, and no known fact appears to strongly militate against it. It is also consistent with most other currently viable theories on the subject including Terror Management Theory.  Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious issues, ranging all the way from personal health responsibility to global climate change.

Varki, A. Human uniqueness and the denial of death. Nature. 460:684. 2009.

Varki, A., and Brower, D. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve Books, New York. 2013.

Varki, A.: Thought Experiment: Dating the Origin of Us. The Scientist 27:28-29, 2013.

Varki, A.: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else? Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A. 113: E2354, 2016.

By Aaron Thierry: The Brutal Logic of Climate Change

A must watch. One of the best talks I’ve seen on climate change.

It’s not a future problem. We’re in the midst of an emergency. Dramatic action is required today.

Unfortunately, like almost every other climate scientist, he does not have a clue when it comes to energy and the economy and he veers off into woo-woo hopium land when discussing solutions.

We need fewer and poorer people. Also known as economic collapse. Nothing else will help.

On a positive note, fewer people improves every one of the many overshoot problems we face, not just climate change.


By Joe Barry: Over-population is the Real Cause of Climate Change


Thanks to JH for bringing this article to my attention.

…if changing the way we behave requires a reduction in our living standards, then nothing will happen.

The remarkable thing is that the real cause of global warming is rarely mentioned. It is the elephant in the room. Everyone can see it but no one wants to speak about it, presumably because this subject is a contentious one and challenges the core beliefs of many religions.

The undeniable fact is that we, the human race, are the cause of our own difficulties and unless we reduce our numbers, we will self-destruct.

When famine struck in 1985 the population of Ethiopia was 36m. That famine eventually ended and their current population is now almost 100m. In 1960, there were only 11m in the entire country.

Like all animals, humans are programmed to reproduce and increase in number but like lemmings, which periodically breed beyond the carrying capacity of their surroundings, we are facing imminent disaster unless we change our ways.

In the past, wars, famine and plagues kept world populations in check. Happily these are now rare events, but if we continue to ignore the true reason for the environmental disasters facing us, we will rapidly pass the point where we can save ourselves.


By James Hansen: March 2017 Address to Young People

James Hansen is a great man.

In this wide-ranging talk he addresses young people saying they need to lead a peaceful revolution to create a new political party that will support science and reason, a carbon tax, and renewed investment in nuclear energy.

He argues that we are at a historic low point of leadership. All parties, left and right, are clueless and ineffective. Hansen has hope for political change because he has seen young people influence elections, and because he has seen in his younger years good leaders that did the right thing, even in the absence of popular support.

Hansen sadly concludes by saying to young people, “sorry to leave you such a friggin’ mess”, but unfortunately it’s up to you to fix it.

Hansen struggles a little in the talk, perhaps because he is tired, or perhaps because despite having worked hard to warn citizens about the dangers of climate change since 1981, every indicator and action by society continues to move in the wrong direction.

As an aside, I think Hansen makes a serious error by stating that a carbon tax will be effective without damaging the economy. A carbon tax will indeed reduce CO2 emissions, but it will also reduce our standard of living, as will any effective climate change policy. He should state this clearly to avoid a dangerous backlash when the truth emerges.

With regard to nuclear energy, it really is the only option that might maintain our modern technology, and I say might because it does not replace our vital diesel. I personally think the risks are unacceptably high that nuclear can be kept safe with proper maintenance and governance as civilization becomes simpler, poorer, and chaotic due to overshoot, the depletion of affordable oil, and the end of growth. But reasonable people could disagree on this, especially people who think modern technology should be retained as a top priority.

I wrote more about Hansen here, and you can find more on the implications of a carbon tax here.