Human capital, population growth and the resource-pyramid

One of several very smart comments by reader Soylent on Barry Brook’s BNC essay What is your energy philosophy? There are many thoughtful comments on Barry’s essay – enjoy…

@David M – “Anybody want to tell me what won’t improve with less people? Anybody want to tell me what won’t get worse with more people?”

Human capital. Our most precious resource and without which all other scarce resources are useless. Oil is just a toxic goop that occassionaly seeps up to the surface and poisons the water supply until you figure out how to make asphalt, oil lamps, oil furnaces, internal combustion engines, gas turbines…

All other resources, including energy, are secondary. We don’t need neodymium if we can figure out how to cheaply make a special form of iron nitride(Fe16N2), which is a much better magnet. We don’t need so many rare earths for LEDs and fluorescent lights if we can make “artificial atoms”(quantum dots) from abundant zinc oxide. We don’t need inferior copper if we can cheaply make CNT quantum wires.

We will need a lot of energy, but we don’t need oil, coal and gas. We are positively swimming in energy that is available for the taking; there’s more energy available in uranium, thorium, deuterium, lithium and sunshine than we know what to do with it; it just happens to be a form we don’t like; just like oil, coal and gas happened to be unusable forms of energy not many centuries ago.

An aging population where the shrinking productive slice of the population is forced to waste an increasing amount of resources taking care of the elderly would be extraordinarily bad.

@David M – “I think it means you reach a point when the economics have you discovering new sources at the same level that you are retiring old sources. My impression is overall we are almost there and shortly after peak the drop on balance of useable fossil fuel is precipitous.”

I think you are dead wrong and that if we don’t abandon oil because we find something better the decline will be ridiculously slow.

There is a “resource-pyramid”. The high-grade resource is a tiny little tip at the top of the pyramid and is long gone for oil . We’ve been working our way slowly down this pyramid and we’re getting ridiculously good at accessing the vast resources nearer the bottom of the pyramid as we go along.

Almost every graph of oil discovery by peak oilers will contain back-dating of reserve growth to the discovery date of the oil field(power-law size distribution => on average oil fields are larger than you have reason to estimate because a few of them turn out to be gigantic. Improvements in drilling and secondary, tertiary recovery technology allows extraction of more of the original oil in place); this is an attempt to obfuscate ongoing and future reserve growth. Most of them also ignore unconventional oil; it wasn’t long ago that deep-sea oil was unconventional and it won’t be long until tar sands and oil shales are conventional oil.

In the US the decline rate has been 1.4%/year average for 39 years since the peak. When the world peaks, the decline rate will be even slower; the world is a bigger, more diverse place and when the US peaked you could just go drill oil some place easier, where as when the world peaks the price shoots up and we proceed further down the pyramid.

A slow squeeze extending a century or two into the future is what failure will look like.