On Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons, Lacks Dialogue

“Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”

“The maximum is not the optimum.”

“We can’t cure a shortage by increasing the supply.”

“Birth control does not equal population control.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

– Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was a respected ecologist and philosopher who warned on the dangers of overpopulation. He wrote a famous 1968 paper titled “The Tragedy of the Commons” which you can download or view in full here.  More information on Garrett’s accomplishments and beliefs can be found at the Garrett Hardin Society site.

The central idea of the tragedy of the commons is that the collective effect of individuals making independent, well-intentioned, rational decisions regarding the use of a shared resource, leads to the degradation of the resource such that it can no longer support the individuals that depend upon it.

Tragedy of the Commons, Pasture and Climate

The classic example, and one we have repeated many times since we came to depend on agriculture 10,000 year ago, is the overgrazing of a pasture shared by herdsman.

A more modern example is someone who emits large quantities of CO2 into the atmospheric commons by flying long distances on a regular basis to spend quality time with family members whose lives will soon be harmed by climate change.

Tragedy of the Commons, Drivers

I was familiar with the concept of the tragedy of the commons but I was not aware that Garrett Hardin was the first modern scientist to write on the topic until a friend recently brought his paper to my attention. I read the paper, learned quite a bit, and recommend it to others.

I was particularly impressed with Hardin’s clear and direct thinking on the threat of over-population and what must be done to prevent it. Here are a few noteworthy excerpts from his essay.

The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog”–if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds. But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations agreed to the following:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is “our last and best hope,” that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we shouldn’t play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy.” If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations.

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation.

In C. G. Darwin’s words: “It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus”.

Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man’s population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

I summarize Hardin’s position as follows:

  • Failure to control population growth will result in ruin.
  • Population control via appeal to reason or conscience, or threat of shame, will not work, and will in fact make the situation worse. Population can only be effectively controlled by coercion, that is, laws with penalties for overbreeding.
  • The key to passing population control laws is to educate citizens on the reality that if they do not relinquish the freedom to breed they will lose all of their freedoms, including eventually the freedom to breed.

Garrett Hardin was a wise and prescient man who attempted to warn his fellow citizens of a serious threat to their well being, and most importantly, told them what they needed to do and why.  Other great people have attempted to do the same, for example, Dennis Meadows and his collaborators on the 1972 Limits to Growth study.

Hardin’s essay was written 50 years ago when the world’s population was 3.5 billion, a level already far in excess of what can be sustained without abundant, affordable, non-renewable, finite, and depleting fossil energy.

Over the last 50 years the population more than doubled to 7.6 billion and many new overshoot threats backed by solid scientific understanding have emerged like climate change, net energy decline, and ground level ozone.

There’s been plenty of information and (opportunity for) education. We can therefore conclude that Hardin’s assumption that education is the key to preventing overshoot is wrong.

As readers of this blog know, I think the key impediment to changing human behavior in a positive direction is the fact that humans evolved to denial reality, as explained by Varki’s MORT theory.

How can a majority emerge to support a contentious law to control breeding when the vast majority of the 7.6 billion people on the planet deny the existence of overshoot?

Much has been written by many people on the tragedy of the commons. Commentators typically fall into one of two groups:

The first group appreciates the centrality of the commons problem to human existence and spends much energy arguing how best to address the problem with the usual divisive, inconclusive, and unproductive positions of right vs. left, private vs. public, capitalism vs. socialism, libertarian vs. autocratic , etc.

The second group denies a commons problem exists, or thinks innovation and technology will solve any problems.

Where is the most important and missing third group?

That would be the group searching for an understanding of how an otherwise uniquely intelligent species can deny its obvious predicament. Brief reflection leads to the obvious conclusion that until we understand the genetic basis for our ability, on the one hand, to understand highly complex topics, like the laws of  physics that explain the creation of the universe and life, and on the other hand, to selectively deny much simpler and plainly obvious facts, like human overshoot and our own mortality, we have no hope of addressing the tragedy of the commons, or any of the other behaviors that threaten our species.

A few people have achieved some insight into our tendency to deny reality but I observe that they usually soon thereafter drop their pursuit of understanding.  I find this very curious because if you have a deep understanding of the human predicament there is nothing more import to understand and to raise awareness of than reality denial.

If you deny the existence or implications of overshoot, then it is logical to embrace one or more of the many arguments against a one child law, austerity, and conservation. On the other hand, if you embrace the reality of overshoot, then a one child law, austerity, and conservation not only become perfectly reasonable, they become the most important, ethical, moral, and rational things we must do.

There is an exciting (for me) passage in Hardin’s essay that hints he may have  understood or anticipated at least a portion of the MORT theory.

…the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…  But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

Hardin demonstrated a flash of denial insight by correctly identifying the key issue, but then neglected to explore further in his tragedy of the commons essay.  Unfortunately the reference for his comment on denial is the book “Population, Evolution, and Birth Control“, which is a collection of essays by different authors that Hardin published in 1964, in which Hardin himself contributed an essay titled “Denial and the Gift of History”, and is not available on the internet. I would be grateful if a reader has a hard copy of this book and would be kind enough to provide a summary of his essay.

My expectation is that Hardin did not elaborate on denial of reality because there was ample opportunity for him to do so in his other books, papers, and interviews that I downloaded and searched.

I did find this one excerpt from an interview but it is not very insightful and he clearly thinks the solution is more education:

RUSSELL: Okay. The idea of statistics and the population–I have no reason to really go over that. The other one, of denial and the gift of history, which was a fascinating idea. Our view of working at it, our immortality.

HARDIN: Yes. Well, I think everybody, as he grows older and accumulates more experience and more observation of other people–of himself, too–is impressed with how often we try to fool ourselves. It’s an inescapable human tendency. This is part of original sin, trying to fool ourselves, and always to make things look better than they are. The question is, since we’re so ingenious at pulling the wool over our own eyes, what contrary measures can be taken? It seemed to me that this is one of the great apologies for teaching history: when you see other people in the past, people with whom you have no connection, making the same mistakes, then you can, I think, be more objective about yourself, and say, “Well, maybe I’m just repeating what this guy did two- or three-hundred years ago.” And this, I think, is one of the great gifts of history. It gives us long arms for holding instructive examples far enough from our eyes.

A search also suggested that no one else in 50 years thought Hardin’s comment on reality denial was worth discussing. Many people saw and see merit in Hardin’s work, but all seem to have missed his most important point, including perhaps Hardin himself.

I also note that Ajit Varki, the only surviving author of the MORT theory, is no longer researching, or attempting to spread awareness of his theory. Varki is instead leading some research on Glycobiology, which with time, will prove to be insignificant compared to MORT.

Because we understand the dangers, we do not permit alcoholics, or epileptics, or schizophrenics, or blind people to fly our planes.

If we understood our genetic tendency to deny reality, we might not permit reality deniers, which by the way are very easy to detect, to run for elected office.

Many impressive scientists and leaders are working hard to shift the needle on human overshoot. All have failed, and all will continue to fail, if they do not embrace the MORT theory.

We need some scientists and leaders of stature to step up and push awareness of the MORT theory.

A cranky old retired electrical engineer writing a blog doesn’t cut it.

It is too late to avoid a lot of suffering, but with awareness of our predicament we could reduce future suffering, and we might avoid harmful emotional reactions like nuclear war or revolutions.

If we have a hope, MORT awareness might be our only hope.

First Man (2017 documentary)

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I watched this video today. It’s a dramatization of human evolution using actors in makeup and is quite well done. They covered quite a bit of detail on what is known about human evolution over the last few million years.

It was in the last 5 minutes of the 90 minute documentary that I became disappointed. They acknowledged that something important happened 100,000 years ago in one small group of hominids in Africa, and that group quickly displaced all of its many close relatives around the world, and then took over the planet. But unlike with other earlier important events like walking, running, hunting, tools, fire, and cooking, they did not even speculate what happened. Nor did they seem to appreciate its significance.

It’s amazing how many people miss the forest for the trees.

This documentary was ripped by MVGroup and is available at the usual torrent places, or you can pay for it here.

https://www.nilaya.fr/en/programs/first-man

Thirty million years ago a new group of creatures appeared on planet Earth: the great apes. From their ranks arose one family, gifted with exceptional skills: our protagonists.

This family would change the face of our world forever.

Moving upright in the trees, they were then lords of the canopy, reigning supreme over limitless forests stretching from Europe to Asia. They founded a new social way of life. They created a language. They invented education as a way of passing on knowledge to their children.

But the day came when the forest no longer sufficed to feed them. Little by little, they ventured onto the ground where they developed hunting skills, and tools to improve their skills.

This early family expanded in number, producing the need to become collectively organized. Politics reared its head. Power structures and warfare soon followed.

Some now decided to risk liberating themselves for good from the world of the trees.

Our ancestors were hungry for freedom. But on the savannah, the predators were absolute kings. So our ancestors invented weapons. And, for the first time, challenged the supremacy of the big cats. A new era had begun.

Man’s early ancestors set off to conquer the world, to explore the unknown, to adapt to every environment. And one day, to conquer fire – a discovery that made them invincible.

They built shelters. They transformed their environment. But still this did not slake their thirst for more. They sought to fathom Nature’s mysteries. They invented stories to explain the inexplicable. Now, they are Men.

Here, for the very first time in television history, is the saga of our origins, told through the story of one single family – an epic journey upon which the latest scientific discoveries shine an exciting new light.

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

crude-the-incredible-journey-of-oil

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.

http://www.abc.net.au/science/crude/resources/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1551617/

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.

 

 

By Allan Stromfeldt Chris­tensen: Book Review – When Trucks Stop Running by Alice Friedemann

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I am reading but have not yet finished Alice Friedemann’s excellent book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation.

Here are a couple interviews with the author discussing her book.

When contemplating the depletion of affordable non-renewable fossil energy it seems that transportation will be the most important casualty.

We can survive without cars, long distance vacations, and Asia manufactured clothing, housewares, and electronics, but most people cannot survive without the food produced and delivered by tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.

It might be possible to revert to wind powered ships, and to electrify some of the train system, but there is no viable substitute for diesel powered trucks.

Some locales with good soil, adequate rainfall, and low population densities will be able to feed themselves with locally grown food produced with human labor. Most will not.

Today Allan Stromfeldt Chris­tensen published an excellent review of Friedemann’s book.

http://fromfilmerstofarmers.com/blog/2017/april/book-review-when-trucks-stop-running-energy-and-the-future-of-transportation/

Here are Christensen’s concluding remarks. Note that the core of his conclusion revolves around denial of reality.

Friedemann suggests in summation that rather than waste the fossil fuels we’ve got left on attempting to build out systems that won’t have much of a shelf life, we’d be much better off using that fossil energy to convert away from industrial agriculture, to build passive solar houses and buildings, maintain and upgrade domestic waterway transportation infrastructure as well as other low-energy systems.

Regardless, no PR agency, or energy lobbyist, or charlatan is going to be content with letting Friedemann get away with the last word here. For as was mentioned in the passage of hers I quoted earlier:

“W]hen scientists find [uncomfortable facts], they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out…”

And you know what that means, right?

Elon Musk just announced the unveiling of the Tesla Semi truck!! And it’s “Seriously next level”!!

Okay, okay, I don’t mean to say that the latest MuskMobile will “never pan out”, just that Concordes generally necessitate too much energy to make them viable without significant subsidies of one sort or another. And that isn’t to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with subsidies either, just that while Friedemann also points out that “it is energy, not money, that fuels society”, it is also energy, not money, that fuels subsidies (money is after all a proxy for energy, as I’ve previously written).

In other words, using energy to subsidize energy probably isn’t much of a viable long-term plan, but it can certainly score you the starring role as the latest messiah in this age of optimism being valued over facts.

Varki’s MOR vs. Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I am reading Julian Jaynes‘ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and am trying to understand how it relates to Varki’s Mind Over Reality (aka Denial of Reality) theory.

Specifically:

  1. Is Varki a prerequisite for Jaynes, or does Jaynes stand on its own?
  2. Does Jaynes answer questions not answered by Varki?
  3. Does Jaynes conflict with Varki?
  4. Do the two theories offer different explanations for:
    1. the singular emergence of a brain with an extended theory of mind;
    2. the singular emergence of a brain capable of advanced physics;
    3. the singular emergence and universality of religion in the cultures of behaviorally modern humans;
    4. the reason that belief in life after death is the only common denominator between thousands of human religions;
    5. the reason that otherwise intelligent humans deny all aspects of their overshoot and the severe damage they are doing to the ecology that sustains them.

If there are any readers that have pondered these questions I would love to hear your thoughts.

I intend to write a summary and offer answers to the above questions after I finish the book.

Jaynes is quite a dense and unintuitive book so it may require several readings before I have the confidence to tackle a summary.

By Alice Friedemann: Book Review of “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical triggers of Political Violence by Nafeez Ahmed

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Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is an investigative journalist that focuses on biophysical issues like over population, resource depletion, and climate change that underlie most of the wars and social unrest around the world.

Ahmed recently published a book titled “Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical triggers of Political Violence” and Alice Friedemann has written an excellent review of the book.

http://energyskeptic.com/2017/book-review-of-failing-states-collapsing-systems-biophysical-triggers-of-political-violence-by-nafeez-ahmed/

 

Since the 2008 financial crash, there’s been an unprecedented outbreak of social protest: Occupy in the US and Western Europe, the Arab Spring, and civil unrest from Greece to Ukraine, China to Thailand, Brazil to Turkey, and elsewhere. Sometimes civil unrest has resulted in government collapse or even wars, as in Iraq-Syria and Ukraine- Crimea. The media and experts blame it on poor government, usually ignoring the real reasons because all they know is politics and economics.

In the Middle East, experts should also talk about geology.  Oil-producing nations like Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq have all reached peak oil and declining government revenues after that force rulers to raise the prices of food and oil.  This region was already short on water, and now climate change (from fossil fuels) is making matters much worse with drought and heat waves causing even greater water scarcity, which in turn lowers agricultural production.  Many of these nations have some of the highest rates of population growth on earth at a time when resources essential to life itself are declining.

The few nations still producing much of the oil – Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are about to join the club and stop exporting oil so they can provide for their domestic population.

 

ahmed-2017-peak-oil-fresh-water-population

 

Ahmed says that so far after peak oil production, Middle-Eastern economies have declined as revenues declined, leading to systemic state-failure in roughly 15 years, more or less, depending on how hard hit a nation was by additional (climate-change) factors such as drought, water scarcity, food prices, and overpopulation.

Saudi Arabia, and much of the rest of Arabian Gulf peninsula, may experience state-failure well within 10 to 20 years. If forecasts of Saudi oil depletion are remotely accurate, then by 2030 the country will simply not exist as we know it. Coupled with the accelerating impacts of climate-induced water scarcity, the Kingdom is bound to begin experiencing systemic state-failure at most within 20 years, and probably much earlier.

 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their internal territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure. Likewise, after 2030, Europe, India, China (and other Asian nations) will begin to experience symptoms of systemic state-failure.

 

By Allan Stromfeldt Chris­tensen: Book Review: The Oracle of Oil

Here is a very nice history on peak oil and a review of a new biography on its first researcher, M. King Hubbert.

http://fromfilmerstofarmers.com/blog/2016/june/book-review-the-oracle-of-oil/

Living in highly technological civilizations that generally place the greatest importance and value upon the material gadgetry and inventiveness of our societies, it should come as little surprise that the luminaries and household names that we can readily conjure and associate with are those related to the technological aspects of our lives. For example, when one mentions the telephone, the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, or nuclear bombs, it’s likely that many a grade-schooler can rhyme off the names Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and, perhaps, Albert Einstein.

But segue into more ecological matters and the fathers and mothers of these vocations are certainly not household names the way the aforementioned are. For what comes to mind when we think of organic farming, climate change, the environmental movement, or limits to growth? For most of those who flick light switches on and off as much as they eat food and depend on stable planetary ecological balances, the answers are probably little more than a shrug. While children can quite easily conjure up the aforementioned names, you’d be hard pressed to find even an adult who could easily slip off of their tongues the names Sir Albert Howard, Svante Arrhenius, Rachel Carson, and the team of Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers.

But while the topics of organic farming, climate change, and the environmental movement can certainly elicit recognition in the average citizen, the reality of peak oil quite often does not, with even less of a recognition expected in reference to the person that initially brought it to our attention. That largely unknown individual would be M. King Hubbert, the subject of Mason Inman’s timely new biography, The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future.

As Inman describes it, after having spent his early formative years on a farm in the Hill Country of Central Texas, and gone through two years of community college, a young Hubbert ended up making his way through various hardscrabble jobs on his way to the University of Chicago. It was there that the mathematically inclined Hubbert got exposed to a variety of disciplines that would aid him in his future endeavours, those ranging from geology to physics to math.

It was while still an undergrad that the first inklings of Hubbert’s future interest can be seen, that moment when he first glimpsed a chart depicting the exponential growth of coal extraction rates. After a following lecture on petroleum extraction, Hubbert apparently couldn’t help but muse to himself, “How long will it last?” For now, as he put it, it was “Difficult to estimate reserves.”

By no means though was Hubbert afflicted with a one-track kind of mind, for as Inman astutely weaves within his story, Hubbert, and at only 26-years-of-age, accepted a job offer to teach geophysics at Columbia University in New York City, the place where he became an original member of what would become the second focus of his life – the nascent movement soon to be known as Technocracy. In short, Technocracy was a not-quite totalitarian system whereby government-owned industries were envisioned as being managed by scientists, engineers and technicians. In fact, all of North America, even all the way down to Venezuela (because it had oil?) would be under the “continental control” of a united government, known as a “Technate.” Technocracy also disdained “the price system” in favour of “energy certificates,” a highly relevant notion that Inman fortunately repeatedly returns to.

In the meantime, Hubbert was all the while dissatisfied with the supposedly common sense notion that the extraction of a given mineral increases exponentially until one day, poof!, there’s nothing left. As he understood it, extraction and depletion rates could be related to the so-called S-curve that can be seen in an isolated pair of breeding fruit flies: their population soars and eventually tapers off at a plateau (or a flattened peak). And as Hubbert was in the minority with his belief that there were limits to growth, he similarly saw various facets of industrial society as fitting on this S-curve.

Being one of the leading proponents of Technocracy and an ardent writer on its workings, it was in Technocracy publications that Hubbert dabbled in writing about peaks and declines of resources. Come 1938, Hubbert came up with his first, but somewhat unsubstantiated (and rather off), estimate of the year that US oil extraction rates would peak: 1950. But having moved from academia to the government in the early 40s, it wasn’t until he then took a job at the US branch of Royal Dutch Shell in 1943 (eventually becoming the top geologist in a new lab it created) that Hubbert would have the resources and access to information that would allow him to formulate a more detailed analysis which led to his ground-breaking predictions.

For it was on March 8th, 1956, that Hubbert gave his talk “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” his revelatory paper that laid out his thoroughly analysed prediction that US oil extraction rates would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970 (to go along with a global peak in 2000). I won’t spoil things with a recitation of the rather humorous tensions, but I will point out that Hubbert was in fact correct, and that US oil extraction rates peaked in 1970. Furthermore, while much derision of Hubbert’s findings resulted both before and after 1970 (to go along with a smattering of praise), what may come as surprising to those thoroughly familiar with peak oil but too young to have been around back then (such as I, who was busy being born while President Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigans and having solar panels placed on the White House) is the amount of media attention given to estimates of US oil supplies, including both before and after Hubbert’s famous paper.

For while peak oil is nowadays generally dismissed – and more commonly ignored – by the mainstream media in lieu of financial abracadabra and/or dreams of a 100% replacement of fossil fuel energy with renewable (“renewable”) energy, the amount of serious talk that domestic US oil supplies garnered in the mid to late-mid 20th century is comparatively astounding. Inman’s surprising historical account relays the fact that the topic made the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post on more than one occasion, while the New York Times even visited Hubbert at his home to interview him! And even more absurd is Inman’s account of the US administration’s – all the way up to President Jimmy Carter’s – interest in Hubbert’s work, President Carter even making a quasi-reference to Hubbert’s work in one of his talks.

The question(s) that these shocking revelations (shocking to me at least) that Inman conveys is, What happened? Why were oil supplies and extraction rates such a big issue a few decades ago, when today the talk, if anything, is all about energy prices?

As Inman points out, one of the ordeals that began to drown out talk of oil extraction rates was the Watergate scandal of 1973. Following that, the “doom and gloom” of President Jimmy Carter (Carter’s sources called for worldwide oil extraction rates to peak in the mid-1980s [!?], while Hubbert’s calculations saw 2000 as the peak year) was no match for the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, resulting in a new President and the removal of the White House’s interloping solar panels.

Jump ahead a few decades, and from what I can tell, not only does it seem that this Reagan-esque sunny optimism continues to reign supreme, but that it has imbued itself into the thinking of many progressives and environmentalists today, through the optimistic attitude of the “clean and green” notion that “renewables” can provide a 100% substitution for fossil fuels. As far as I can see it, it is this techno-optimist attitude of technology-as-saviour, to go along with another round of obeisance to financialization as itinerant saviour, that has convinced many people that energy supplies, and thus peak oil, need not be an issue (anymore, supposing that they ever really were).

But as Inman’s account also explains, Hubbert wasn’t quite averse to the techno-optimist way of thinking either. Although he did eventually do away with his staunch support for nuclear power, Hubbert ended up trading a reliance on nuclear power for a rather oversized belief in solar power. That is, Hubbert envisioned deserts covered in solar panels that would generate electricity of which could be converted into methanol or to generate hydrogen, and that such ventures could power high-energy societies (New York City!) for thousands of years. It was thus Hubbert’s belief that

“with our technology and with adequate supplies of energy, we ought to have a lot of leisure. And the proper use of this leisure can bring us an intellectual renaissance.”

This attitude gels with the stated Technocratic “embrace [of] the abundance created by machines,” which for me is hard to equate with the notion that peak oil and diminishing energy supplies in general imply less energy to power those machines, unless you believe in the sunny optimism of solar-panel-covered-deserts (to go along with other “renewables”) that can match the energetic output of fossil fuels (which the low EROEI levels of, say, solar panels, says isn’t quite feasible).

Having said all that, Hubbert did fortunately have the all-too-rare understanding that

“One of the most ubiquitous expressions in the language right now is growth – how to maintain our growth. If we could maintain it, it would destroy us.”

So although, and from my understandings, Hubbert had the questionable belief that nuclear power, and then solar panels, could provide not quite infinite growth but (rather conveniently?) a kind of infinite steady state of what the current energetic usage happened to be at the time, he did nonetheless realize that none of this could do anything for the problems of overpopulation and diminishing water supplies.

Bringing things into the present, Inman conveys the fact that worldwide conventional oil extraction rates peaked (or perhaps hit their plateau) in 2006 at 70 million barrels per year, finally dropping down to 69 million barrels per year in 2014. As it is, the only thing keeping overall oil extraction rates increasing – and giving the last push to the economic growth which Hubbert so despised – are the unconventional oil supplies of tight oil (via fracking) and tar sands oil.

This brings us back to Technocracy’s disdain for “the price system” (or as Hubbert put it, “the monetary culture”), which was the status quo and scarcity-based economics system that measures everything in dollars and cents, and which ignores physical limits. For as Technocracy conversely saw it, money would be abandoned for “energy certificates,” allowing for everything to be paid in their energy equivalent.

Upon first coming across the name M. King Hubbert some ten years ago I happened to read about Hubbert’s disagreement with our practice of fractional-reserve banking, of which I’ve never seen mentioned again until Inman’s book (kind of, as Inman doesn’t mention fractional-reserve banking directly). It is from this knowledge that I’ve come to understand the situation of diminishing energy supplies: since money is a proxy for energy, limits on energy supplies will imply limits to the continuance of our economic (Ponzi scheme) system, leading to an inability for sufficient payments to service even the interest payments on previous loans – which implies and will contribute to the collapse (implosion) of economies, be it slowly or quickly. As Hubbert put it, “exponential growth is about over. We’re entering something new.”

But not being much of a fan of a grandiose Technate myself (nor of the belief that there would ultimately be enough alternative energy supplies to maintain such a massive and centralized system anyway), we could still work off of Hubbert’s disdain for “the monetary culture” towards something like the Ecological Economics of Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, a discipline which is also in favour of moving away from fractional-reserve banking and the notion of infinite growth. And since peak oil means growth is coming to an end, perhaps a look to biophysical economics (see Energy and the Wealth of Nations by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, or the new journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, edited by Hall, Ugo Bardi, and Gaël Giraud) could help us to envision a worthy alternative to Technocracy’s monetary substitution.

Regardless, there does seem to be merit for Hubbert’s belief in perhaps a partially planned economy, supposing that that would even be politically possible. Market forces are quite obviously doing little to nothing to ween us away from the usage of fossil fuels (be they diminishing or not), and the primary effect that high oil prices (reaching $147 a few years back) had was to spur investment in the higher costing unconventionals.

In the meantime, supposing that conventional and unconventional oil supplies continue their slight overall increase for years to come, this also poses a problem in light of carbon dioxide levels contributing to climate change. Inman thus poses the ultimately unavoidable and extremely pertinent questions: Do we really think market forces will come to our rescue? And if not, are we going to impose limits on ourselves, or are we simply going to sit back and wait until nature imposes those limits for us?

So whether you’re new to the notion of peaking oil supplies or rather familiar with it, I can certainly say that The Oracle of Oil has much new to shine on the story – and now history – of peak oil. With oil supplies being what they currently are, and with no off-planet supply to make up for what will this time not just be a US shortfall but a planetary shortfall, Inman’s book could certainly do us a favour by helping us to familiarize ourselves with the reality of peak oil, and by helping us to make M. King Hubbert the household name it ought to be.

That is of course a lot to ask, and after the virtual silence on peak oil that occurred after the global peak of conventional oil extraction rates in 2006 (to go along with all that has ensued since), one couldn’t be blamed for expecting little different upon the reaching of the global peak of conventional and unconventional oil extraction rates in the coming months or years (?). But one can always hope of course.

Godspeed the overall global peak?