160. IS CONSERVATION FUTILE?
Mark Allen writes in with some thoughtful and important comments, so I will respond in detail. Mark writes:
I'm not sure you conservation/doomer types are understanding each other. I just read most of the entries on your front page and it's possible I misunderstood too, but I'd like to summarize what I believe might be the disconnect.Yes, that's basically it. Although I am not necessarily committed to the idea that prices will rise gradually. They may raise suddenly, but even in that case, huge and immediate savings can be achieved through simple lifestyle adjustments like sleeping at work or piling large numbers of people into commuting vehicles.
Am I correct that your key point is that supply will shrink gradually, prices will rise gradually, and as this happens people will make gradual lifestyle changes to conserve, due to the economic pressure from increasing prices? And it won't be too big a deal because most of our gasoline use is frivolous and could be cut back if people would take the initiative to do so.
I have a theory about where this disconnects with the doomer reasoning. I think they would argue that oil has both frivolous and valuable uses. Frivolous being commuting in an SUV or heating/cooling a large house. Valuable perhaps being manufacturing and distribution of goods, or more modest climate control of a smaller home or just a room.Yes, there are critical uses of oil, such as fueling farm equipment and work trucks. But I don't believe there is any essential job where oil cannot be replaced with a viable substitute.
I think this would be one point for you to discuss with the doomers. Do you believe that valuable worthwhile uses of oil do indeed exist?
Assuming so, the doomers probably perceive your argument for conservation as being "right now we still have cheap oil, so lets all stop our frivolous usage thus extending the supply of cheap oil so we can maintain these valuable uses as long as possible."My argument is more like this: Oil is high right now, and it will definitely get higher due to the inability to meet demand. This is a direct consequence of peak oil. Oil must decline, and although substitutes are easily capable of meeting demand for valuable uses, they will not (by a long shot) be able to meet demand for the current level of frivolous use. So it's better to stop your frivolous usage now because you're going to need to save money for your worthwhile uses. Everybody's going to get thrown into the pool anyway, so you might as well get your feet wet. Also, there are many advantages to conserving early. For instance, if you want to move closer to work, it's economically advantageous to do so now before everybody gets the same idea.
That may or may not be what you're saying, but I think that's the argument they're debating against. And the argument against that is easy enough, that when some of us conserve and manage to reduce our demand and keep prices low, all we're accomplishing is allowing others to continue their frivolous use until the supply becomes seriously strained.I read your argument like this: If the goal is to reduce overall consumption of gasoline, then any one person's bicycling will not help. That's true.
So people like me bike to work, and reduce demand, thus allowing prices to stay low. Meanwhile my neighbor looks at the nice low gas prices and says "golly gee, what's all this talk about peak oil and conservation, we're rolling in cheap oil, always will be" and proceeds to buy his daughter an SUV so she can drive it to high school every day.
But why should I care about overall consumption of gasoline? Why is that an important issue for me? If I start bicycling, and then I look in the newspaper and see that the numbers for gasoline consumption have gone down, have I met my goal? Do I say "Woo-hoo! Nationwide consumption down. Mission accomplished?" No, I don't. If I stop using gasoline, I don't care about the gasoline market anymore, just like reformed alcoholics don't worry about national alcohol consumption. It's irrelevant.
The flaw in your argument is that it assumes the only goal of conservation is to reduce overall consumption of gasoline, and if overall consumption does not go down, the effort has failed. But that is wrong. There are many other reasons for conserving:
1) Saving money
2) Maintaining your standard of living in the face of price increases
3) Respecting the environment
4) Getting into shape
5) Enjoying the benefits of a car-free lifestyle
In my own case, I don't use any gasoline at all. So I don't really care whether total gasoline consumption goes up or down. The price of gasoline might as well be the price of donuts on Mars, for all I care. True, gasoline prices do filter through into the price of goods to some degree, but that effect is very small and it is something I can't change. So I don't worry about it. The point is: Conservation meets many of my personal goals, and therefore it is not a failure, even though total consumption of fuel did not go down.
Or look at it this way: Suppose I'm just an ordinary person, working at Walmart, and commuting 40 miles a day each way. As oil prices rise, so do my commuting costs, and they start pinching my budget. Should I conserve by (for example) moving closer to work or riding a scooter? Well, according to your argument, I shouldn't because my conservation is not going to reduce overall consumption. In fact, I should just keep commuting in the same old wasteful way because, if I don't, my neighbor will use the fuel I'm conserving. But clearly there is a price point where this logic breaks down. I have to save myself from bankruptcy and preserve my standard of living, and it really doesn't matter what my neighbor and everybody else are doing with gasoline. That's their problem, not mine, and it always was.
One thing is for sure. Peak oil is coming, and the best thing you can do to prepare for it is to reduce your exposure to oil prices. Your argument purports to show that you should stand in the middle of a street where you know a truck is bearing down. It's bogus on the face of it. If a truck is bearing down, you should get out of the way.
So I think the doomer argument is that the frivolous users will keep demand charging full steam ahead until prices rise dramatically, and at that point we're stuck not only cutting off the frivolous uses, but we're also stuck paying prohibitively expensive prices for the oil that goes toward the valuable uses.I think the main problem with your take on the situation is where you say "we still have cheap oil". Oil (and natural gas) are not cheap, and they aren't going to get any cheaper.
Anyway I don't think everyone in the "we need oil" crowd is saying "we need cars and SUV's". And I think it would be helpful if you clarified your own argument. Are you saying that conservation today while we still have cheap oil is valuable, or just that conservation will be valuable and useful in the future after oil prices rise significantly? It's that first argument that's a harder sell, given things like my neighbor-SUV example.
But I think your larger point is a good one: the rich may consume so much oil for frivolous uses, that people begin to suffer due to a lack of oil for valuable purposes. In fact, I would argue that that is already happening; waste in first world countries (particularly the U.S.) is already causing hardship in poorer nations. This, however, is a political problem, not a technical problem, and it will have to be addressed by political means. I think democracy is the best guarantee we have against a Marie Antoinette situation, where the poor are starving due to lack of fuel, while the rich are wasting fuel, farting around in their yachts. Such a situation cannot last long if the poor have a vote. It is also instructive to note that the U.S. imports much of its oil from poorer countries, like Venezuela, which may at some point halt exports because they don't like the idea of Americans wasting their oil while their own people suffer.
Finally, I would like to point out an irony which is becoming increasingly obvious: Conservation is the foundation of the optimistic view of peak oil, not the pessimistic view of peak oil (as you might first expect). True doomers don't like the idea of conservation because it might save "the system", or prolong the agony of die-off. This (I believe) is where much of the doomer negativity about conservation (and the "futility" arguments like the one you proposed) come from.