Thursday, April 14, 2005

pique oil prognostication whimsy

As the energy crisis trickles down, opinions on why we are paying more at the pump turn to predictable bugaboos. Further, the peak oil “community” predicts wildly different outcomes of the future. Some gloomy, some optimistic, and some try to save the future with pure thought.

Who is right? Can we predict the future? Of course not!

That doesn’t make for good readin’ – so let’s dive into the vasty deeps.

The TASTE web site collects transcendent personal experiences from scientists who are unafraid to report them. Consider this one.

What Direction Am I Facing?
As a boy, I "lived" in exactly four different houses, each one facing in a different direction, East, South, West, North. Each one was exactly the same house, peopled by the same persons. There was no difference at all between any of them except the direction they faced.

There is a straightforward explanation for this personal experience. The brain of this scientist perceived the same house in four different ways. Alternatively and more poetically, four instances of the same scientist shifted among four universes.

The orientation of the house, or perception of same, is ultimately unimportant – a detail. To the extent that the scientist was able to recreate this experience later in life, his future was unaffected by the direction his house faced.

So, when predicting the future, we need to filter unimportant details that might prevent us from understanding the future. That seems tricky. Say the scientist in the story above was actually four people with different opinions on its orientation in the same universe. One would be correct, and the other three would be wrong. Different people often have vastly different perceptions about the same thing.

Since present day perceptions of our shared reality are more immediately important than the future, it might be helpful, in the case of oil depletion, to eliminate the concept of “the future” altogether. Shift focus on the way we are currently altering relatively useful hydrocarbons to relatively useless atmospheric carbon. In other words, ignore time altogether.

Is there any possible justification for ignoring the future when trying to predict it?

Famous contrarian jerk Kurt Gödel might have argued that there is.

Gödel, who hung out with Einstein during their mutual Princeton era solved Einstein’s theory of General Relativity in such a way to eliminate Time, leaving only space. This he presented to Einstein on his seventieth birthday.

Gödel and Einstein: Friendship and Relativity
Einstein saw at once that if Gödel was right, he had not merely domesticated time: He had killed it. Time, "that mysterious and seemingly self-contradictory being," as Gödel put it, "which, on the other hand, seems to form the basis of the world's and our own existence," turned out in the end to be the world's greatest illusion. In a word, if Einstein's relativity theory was real, time itself was merely ideal. The father of relativity was shocked. Though he praised Gödel for his great contribution to the theory of relativity, he was fully aware that time, that elusive prey, had once again slipped his net.

I do not think there is any observed evidence for Gödel's Rotating Universe, a space-continuum where everything exists. It would certainly leave us with some banal metaphysical conundrums to which Stephen Hawking wrote up a classic response.

Whether or not Gödel is correct about Time, time is an unimportant detail for serious prognosticators, like the orientation of the aforementioned house, and the future is a useless abstraction.

A clear eyed look at what is going on now is all that is required, just as it was is for M. King Hubbert in the 1950’s. We don’t need to predict the future; we are what the future is made of. Hubbert “predicting” peak oil is a similar feat to me “predicting” the sun will rise in the morning. Individual oil fields deplete every day, so why should it be different for all oil fields?

It isn’t. It could be, and the sun, for a variety of reasons, could fail to rise tomorrow. More likely, the world will remember both of us as singular geniuses.

Likewise, right now, the oceans are becoming more acidic, the tundra smells like spring and chimps are poking sticks into methane hydrates, cause damn it, we’re curious to see what we can get away with. Agriculture effluent runoff, right now, is flowing down a thousand streams into the ocean and spreading dead zones and algae blooms.

Right now, most agriculture relies on massive petroleum inputs. Right now, everything you buy in the supermarket travels hundreds or more likely thousands of miles. Cars are a physical necessity for most people in the United States, if they wish to participate in the culture.

There are dreams and plans for an alternate future. The hydrogen economy. A billion windmills, or solar cells. Conservation and local agriculture, simpler living. These ideas are fragmentary wisps of smoke right now. They may coalesce into sharper form and definition by and by, but in no way are they representative of how most westerners live. Some ideas, for the time being, are actually engineering challenges we have not solved yet, being presented as solutions.

So, my personal prediction of the so-called future, given oil depletion, involves adding up everything we are doing today, and subtracting everything we are not doing, and then just using my intuition.

And I think you should do the same.


At 5:00 AM, April 14, 2005, Blogger Big Gav said...

I see a niche waiting to be filled in the peak oil world - night soil dipper !

As for chimps, I quite like watching them play - much more inventive than the average human (though the stuff they do with night soil can be a bit shocking).

At 5:01 AM, April 14, 2005, Blogger Big Gav said...

Doh - that should have read "post peak oil world"...

At 9:50 AM, April 15, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

You read the Edo story too, eh.


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