Monday, May 14, 2007

The Myopia of More

Fifty years ago to the day, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, gave an amazingly prophetic speech regarding resource depletion at a Banquet of the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association.

I've edited it a lot, but the complete text is here.

"Whether this Golden Age will continue depends entirely upon our ability to keep energy supplies in balance with the needs of our growing population. Before I go into this question, let me review briefly the role of energy resources in the rise and fall of civilizations.

Possession of surplus energy is, of course, a requisite for any kind of civilization, for if man possesses merely the energy of his own muscles, he must expend all his strength - mental and physical - to obtain the bare necessities of life.

Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living - a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter; attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm; appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger. It provides the freedom from toil without which there can be no art, music, literature, or learning. There is no need to belabor the point.

What lifted man - one of the weaker mammals - above the animal world was that he could devise, with his brain, ways to increase the energy at his disposal, and use the leisure so gained to cultivate his mind and spirit. Where man must rely solely on the energy of his own body, he can sustain only the most meager existence.


When a low-energy society comes in contact with a high-energy society, the advantage always lies with the latter. The Europeans not only achieved standards of living vastly higher than those of the rest of the world, but they did this while their population was growing at rates far surpassing those of other peoples. In fact, they doubled their share of total world population in the short span of three centuries. From one sixth in 1650, the people of European stock increased to almost one third of total world population by 1950.


The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever.

Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare.


For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today's unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account. Oil and natural gas will disappear first, coal last. "

Rickover goes on to make his pitch for some renewables and, of course, nuclear energy, in which he overestimates the total nuclear fuel resource base. He finishes with these words:

"One final thought I should like to leave with you. High-energy consumption has always been a prerequisite of political power. The tendency is for political power to be concentrated in an ever-smaller number of countries.

Ultimately, the nations which control the largest energy resources will become dominant. If we give thought to the problem of energy resources, if we act wisely and in time to conserve what we have and prepare well for necessary future changes, we shall insure this dominant position for our own country."

Last night, I drove home from a visit to the northern suburbs of San Antonio.

The great subddivisions there, packed with houses large and not so large, don't even have side walks. The huge retail centers and schools that are built around them are accessible only by asphalt arterials. The super highways that connect the arterials are lined with car dealers and the parking lots of chain restaurants that thrust their dominating garishly lit signs into the glowing night sky.

These developments are literally a glowing testament to the Myopia of More. We want more home, more car, more flat screen, more wine, more money, more time.

Not only do we not see past the next generation, we barely see beyond the next quarter, or the next paycheck.

Most of the people who live in those suburbs count on their leaders

to look down the road for them.

When the Crude Awakening comes,

They'll get their vision corrected.

oZ note: Peak Oil Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett will give a speech tonight on CSPAN commemorating the Rickover speech.


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Blogger Charlie Loving said...

A friend told me to reaf Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". I have read it twice in fact and had forgotten how it fits into what is going on now. Rome went from being productive to being comsumptive.

I am always struck dumb by the likes of Costco, Sam's, the car dealers with seas of cars to sell, the oceans of travel trailers dealers and there is Fry's. All sell stuff I really don't really need. How many Hummers coulld I use? How many Harleys?

A computer is nice of course to talk to the world with and to stay in touch. But the other stuff, the iPods, Blueberries, the 100 inch tee vee, the DVD players and so forth are useless to me.

The hundreds of franchaise places to eat boggle the mind and I never darken their doors, well I do take in an occasional DQ. I usually find the food mediochre and would rather take a chance with Thai food or a real Taco stand.

The mad consumption is a form of insanity. And will lead to an interesting disaster. It may not be 2050 it could be 2010?

4:14 PM  

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