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Saturday, November 12, 2005

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.

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.
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.
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.

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?
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.
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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.

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.
--by JD

25 Comments:

At Saturday, November 12, 2005 at 7:24:00 PM PST, Blogger James said...

BRAVO JD! This is why I am an optimistic person in the face of Peak Oil. PO.com censors people like us, this blog and the message board allows pessimists and doomers to make their arguments in a democratic manner. That's why
I come here.

Great post!

 
At Saturday, November 12, 2005 at 9:16:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Yet another example of how prophesies are self-fulfilling. If you think that trying to solve problems is futile, you'll never solve them. If you're optimistic, you'll do much better for yourself. (-:

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 10:02:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I preface these remarks by saying that I am definitely for conservation. I just don't think it's going to help as much as many might hope.

Anyway, I challenge the assumption that the price of oil has little effect on the price of other items. Within a certain range, this is certainly true. But eventually, it will have to have a profound effect on prices. Right now, manufacturing profits in my sector are down because of the rise in oil prices. This will eventually lead to end-user price increases once its clear that the higher prices are there to stay, and in fact this has already begun to some extent. As we move into a time of greater and greater instability, prices will tend to move higher as well. The most likely course of events that I can see is that the transnation corporations that provide goods through a vast shipping network will fail, and the local base for many products will not be there to replace the loss of that infrastructure. This will lead to a period of very high prices and rampant scarcity.

Also, I challenge the notion that we could all do with much less petroleum usage without seriously damaging the economy. Too many people depend on handling the frivolous usages of oil for their livings. If everyone, say, stopped driving cars and started riding bicylces, all the people in the auto industry, the retail gasoline industry, car washes, autoparts manufacturers and retailers, road construction workers and engineers, etc. etc. would be out of work.

This is the heart of the economic end of the problem. Pretty soon, everyone's going to need to ride bikes, but there won't be enough bikes, the infrastructure will not be able to support it, and for a time there will be mass chaos.

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 12:08:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JD wrote:

"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"

You think you're going to be so smug when the Japanes economy collapses under the pressure of $200 oil? Or when Japan and China start fighting over the oil in the South China sea?

You're so clueless it's stunning.

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 12:09:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Too many people depend on handling the frivolous usages of oil for their livings. If everyone, say, stopped driving cars and started riding bicylces, all the people in the auto industry, the retail gasoline industry, car washes, autoparts manufacturers and retailers, road construction workers and engineers, etc. etc. would be out of work."

Exactly. And those people are likely to react to their new status as "economic losers" the same way the German people did in the 1920s.

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 1:11:00 PM PST, Anonymous Wildwell said...

It's happened many times in History - workers in Economic sectors have been reduced:

For example in 1946 there was over 1 million coal miners in GB, now there are just a few thousand.

Agriculture is similar, thanks to oil and the Green revolution numbers and profits have been reduced a great deal.

Meanwhile IT, personal services, law, and many other sectors have expanded, none of which are that oil intensive.

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 2:18:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's happened many times in History - workers in Economic sectors have been reduced:

Of course it has. And bad consequences have only been avoided when there was something else for those people to do. Once oil becomes too expensive to ignore the call of conservation, there will be nothing else for those people to do. Ergo, if history is any indicator (and you seem to think it is, since you brought it up), we will not avoid bad consequences. Horrible, in this case.

For example in 1946 there was over 1 million coal miners in GB, now there are just a few thousand.

As I recall, in the 1960's and 70's, Britain went through a pretty serious economic crisis, with very high unemployment. North Sea oil gave them an influx of cash, and people had the money to start new business. That's where those coal miners went. And anyway, coal mines didn't just dry up overnight, whereas sometime after peak, due to economic factors, I think changes will happen very quickly.

Agriculture is similar, thanks to oil and the Green revolution numbers and profits have been reduced a great deal.

I think you have spoke truer than you purposed.

Meanwhile IT, personal services, law, and many other sectors have expanded, none of which are that oil intensive.

Au contraire. They're only made possible by oil. Remove the energy that oil gives us in the form of cheap and readily available food, and we'll have far, far fewer people working in those professions.

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 4:24:00 PM PST, Blogger JD said...

I preface these remarks by saying that I am definitely for conservation.

No you're not. You're definitely opposed to conservation, just like Dick Cheney, and for exactly the same reason. I, on the hand, am for conservation. You can tell because I constantly push conservation, do it myself, and give other people ideas on how to do it.

I'm fed up with you conservation posers. A one sentence disclaimer in favor of conservation, followed by a paragraph describing why conservation is going to kill us all does not make you pro-conservation.

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 6:46:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JD,

Did you forget to take your Zoloft again?

 
At Sunday, November 13, 2005 at 8:52:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too consider myself a conserver – but what I fear is a lack of political backbone to make these changes.

For example, no government is going to actively proclaim that we should "start riding bicycles to work" or limit our "frivolous use of gas" without being labeled wacky lefty/liberal communists – could you imagine what a Bill O’Reilly or Alan Jones (a right wing commentator here in OZ) would do with comments like these?

And whilst the notion of a viable Public Transit System is nirvana, any notion of large public investment in transport infrastructure (unless it's more roads) is seen in a similar light. Remember the mantra – “governments don’t do infrastructure, leave it to the markets”. Of course, the problem here is that the private sector will only do it when the demand is there – but we need start building it today, not in 20 years time.

Similarly, no fuel company will stand idly by whilst governments effectively “talk down” their profits - even the slightest hint that they might “encourage” people onto public transport, use "leg powered vehicles" or hybrid vehicles would immediately be swamped by lobbyist and run into the "mad raving looney” suggestion box (i.e. stopped before they are started).

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 3:31:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

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.


That's utterly wrong: The argument presented to you is that if conservation of a number of people leads to lowering oilprices again consumption by another part of the people will rise again. Thus your conservational efforts are not trivial at all. In other words: Conservation will lead to overconsumption.

Mind you, I have not made my mind up yet if that argument is right. But I have this feeling that your optimism is based on the presumption of everybody cooperating nicely and smoothly, and that equilibrum may be (Note that I use the word "may"!) too fragile to actually exist.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 4:32:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone hit the nail on the head there, which why it makes me laugh about the notion of free markets in transport.

The rail and canal networks were privately built. Conversely the road network is publicly built in the main. It is especially important to note that trucks have never paid their way in the damage they create or accidents they cause, in fact they are cross funded by cars. As we have discovered cars also have huge costs paid out of the public purse.

It the US most of the airports are government built and run too.

Roads are more a mark of socialism rather than any free market forces in action.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 5:15:00 AM PST, Blogger JD said...

That's utterly wrong: The argument presented to you is that if conservation of a number of people leads to lowering oilprices again consumption by another part of the people will rise again. Thus your conservational efforts are not trivial at all. In other words: Conservation will lead to overconsumption.

Actually, your personal conservation efforts are totally trivial. If you don't believe me do the experiment yourself. Try switching your gasoline usage off and on, and see if you can move the price. You'll find that there is no correlation whatsoever between your behavior and the price of gasoline. Therefore, your personal conservation cannot cause overconsumption due to lower prices. Your personal conservation doesn't lower prices at all.

And anyway, the same point still holds. If you stop using gasoline, you don't have to care whether conservation leads to overconsumption.

You're arguing like a junky who says: "If I quit using heroin, it will cause overconsumption of heroin." I would tell that junky: "If you quit using heroin, you won't care anymore what other people are doing with heroin."

Try using your argument on someone who can't pay for gas to commute anymore.

You: You can't conserve gasoline! That would just cause overconsumption!

The guy: I don't care about overconsumption. Overconsumption by everybody else isn't something I need to worry about. My problem right now is how to use less gasoline so I don't go bankrupt.

Are you honestly saying people shouldn't conserve because of your logic? I find that hard to believe.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 6:33:00 AM PST, Anonymous p said...

@JD

I was merely pointing out that you seemed to misinterpret Mark Allen's argument. I haven't formed an opinion yet.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 7:01:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm fed up with you conservation posers. A one sentence disclaimer in favor of conservation, followed by a paragraph describing why conservation is going to kill us all does not make you pro-conservation.

No, conservation will only kill some of us. It's simple math. Without oil, some people are going to die. Some conservation is good; it prolongs our ability to maintain social continuity and increases the chance that someone will figure out a solution. Too much (an inevitability anyway) will lead to a die-off. This isn't a difficult point to understand for those who maintain a clear head.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 7:13:00 AM PST, Anonymous p said...

@JD

(Sorry, last comment went wrong)

My initial idea is that there is a flaw in your assumption that you do not use gasoline. While you personally might not use gasoline you still enjoy gasoline via the economy. Cheap gasoline keeps inflation low, which keeps interestrates low, which makes credit easy, which creates businesses which employ you.

BTW I do not own a car either.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 10:49:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually expensive gasoline = contracting money supply = DEFLATION, not inflation

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 11:00:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone please give me a date for the collapse?

Let's say tomorrow the Saudi's announced they lied about reserves and from this point on we have a 4% anual decline in oil supply.

How long after that happens does the world end? How long until suburbanites eat each other?

Just curious, I know that if doomers are right there's nothing I can do so I should just ignore them anyway, but if JD is right I should live sustainably and get in better shape and clear out my debts - so I'm going with JD's suggestions either way because they are sane, but I just would like a date for the end of the world so I can plan around it, thanks.

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 3:53:00 PM PST, Anonymous Thomas said...

Well said! I totally agree!

Btw. the scenario that you take your bike because gas is too expensive, but all your neighbourghs still have enough money to continue frivolous use of gas is bogus. It's black and white logic, while real life is shades of gray.

It seems to me that a lot of the fear of society crashing is based on the premise that many businesses collapse at once, which seems highly unlikely. Once one business goes under, conditions will immediately become (slightly) better for its competitors. And let's remember, oil is not going to fall of a cliff. Most likely we will see a bumpy plateau at first, where increasing demand will not be satisfied, but there will be plenty of time to make lifestyle adjustments. While such adjustments may be perceived as loss of quality of life at first, it doesn't mean we're dying (off). Don't panic, just be smart :-)

I'm so glad we're discussing this!

Thomas

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 8:15:00 PM PST, Anonymous Rowan Tucker-Evans said...

An example of demand reduction success can be read at the new ASPO Australia website.

"Very substantial changes have already been triggered in existing urban travel patterns when people are given personalised information about the travel choices available to them. Empowering people in this way has resulted in sustained decreases of 8% to 19% in car-kms travelled. The oil saved by these voluntary travel pattern changes is very significant, and shows that reducing car-travel demand is more cost-effective than exploring for more oil.

Australia leads the world in the application of Individualised Marketing to make very significant reductions in car travel rates. Programmes have been completed or are underway in several states. WA has the most extensive record with a number of very successful and well documented programmes. The average reduction in car-kms travelled in the completed WA projects is 13% at a benefit:cost ratio of 30:1, far higher than those of most transport projects. Similar results have been obtained in Europe and the US, (Robinson (2004), Socialdata (2004)).

The TravelSmart Individualised Marketing programmes in WA have covered suburbs with some 158,000 people to date, and have resulted in the annual saving of some 115 million car-kms, or 11 million litres of petrol (John (2004), MacTiernan (2004)). Extrapolated to Australia's urban population, this would equate to about a thousand megalitres of oil saved each year. Globally, this level of travel reduction and mode shift would save each year oil amounting roughly to the annual production of Iraq, as an example."

http://www.aspo-australia.org.au//content/view/26/41/

 
At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 10:53:00 PM PST, Anonymous p said...

@anonymous#10:49 AM

http://sorrel.humboldt.edu/~economic/econ104/macro/inflatlg.gif

 
At Friday, November 25, 2005 at 4:10:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Of course it has. And bad consequences have only been avoided when there was something else for those people to do. Once oil becomes too expensive to ignore the call of conservation, there will be nothing else for those people to do. Ergo, if history is any indicator (and you seem to think it is, since you brought it up), we will not avoid bad consequences. Horrible, in this case.

The solution is clearly to employ them converting the economy to a soft energy path and building more efficient infrastructure. That's the point. There will be plenty of things for the workers to do, precisely because the oil infrastructure is so ingrained, not despite it. The car industry could potentially do fantastically out of replacing every ICE vehicle in the fleet, or contructing thousands of tramways.

 
At Friday, November 25, 2005 at 4:10:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

(Or retrofitting the suburbs with localized workplaces, public transport and windmills. Go the construction industry!)

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2006 at 8:49:00 PM PST, Blogger Hollis said...

"If everyone, say, stopped driving cars and started riding bicylces, all the people in the auto industry, the retail gasoline industry, car washes, autoparts manufacturers and retailers, road construction workers and engineers, etc. etc. would be out of work."

What people fail to grasp is that a loss in jobs of one sector of the economy does not necessarily mean a NET loss of jobs.

If everyone decided to start riding a bike, the bike industry would go through the roof. Thousands or maybe even millions of jobs would be created to account for the demand increase. Bicycles would still use the same roads, and I'm sure a lot of auto workers could be taught easily how to make bikes. It's merely a shift of production , not a loss of jobs.

 
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