Peak Ingenuity

Dot Earth blog interviews Adam R Brandt in More Signs of ‘Peak Us’ in New Study of ‘Peak Oil Demand’:

Oil depletion studies commonly focus on the supply of conventional petroleum without as much attention to the other side of the equation, which is petroleum demand. In this study, we examine the trends affecting demand for conventional oil in the future to see under what conditions “peak demand” for oil might arise. We find that historical trends in oil use lead to a peak in demand for oil by well before mid-century. If concerted effort is made to shift to oil alternatives and promote efficiency, a demand decline may arise even sooner.

A commenter makes the standard reply that technology will save us:

There is no need to perform complicated analysis of peak supplies or peak demand. Julian Simon’s work has proved that human ingenuity outpaces scarcity. He continues to be proven right time after time. (See for example, fracking producing huge amounts of new natural gas.) Yet there appears to be some inborn attraction to Malthusian thinking in humans.

What fracking will eventually cost us is worth considering, and what Malthus actually claimed is also worth researching. In an entirely separate post which I had read the day before, A Peculiar Absence of Bellybones, John Michael Greer speculated about evolutionary paths not taken to challenge the human ingenuity argument.

Whether we’re talking about 2012 or near-term human extinction or the latest claim that some piece of other of energy-related vaporware will solve the world’s increasingly intractable energy and resource shortages, my critics say, “It could happen!” and I reply, “But it won’t.”

But while Greer’s reinterpretation of the theories of Oswald Spengler have been fascinating, his invoking of evolution and chance seemed uneven, so I commented:

“The human brain did not evolve for the purpose of understanding the universe and everything in it …”

I find this claim at odds with your parallel argument that we may just as well have had a belly spine or six arms-and-legs. By that argument, it may just have happened that instead of some adequately-brained critter evolving into man’s niche, a brainier-than-necessary model got there first. We may very well have a brain that is much more powerful than necessary for pure survival – though there is scant evidence for that at the moment.

On the other hand, if we have evolved only as much brain as we need for, “finding food, finding mates, managing relations with fellow hominids, and driving off the occasional leopard,” and no more, then why wouldn’t having a back spine and four arms-and-legs also be attributable to strict evolution?

Greer did reply:

Donal, we have a fairly good idea of the selective pressures that drove the evolution of human intelligence, since that happened quite recently. Those selective pressures were the ones I named, pretty much. That doesn’t mean that those things are the only things a human brain is capable of doing — obviously! — but the notion that the human brain is somehow adapted for perfect objective knowledge of the cosmos is hard to justify on any basis but pure faith.

Of course taking down the straw man of perfectly understanding the cosmos neatly dodges the question of why evolution should be considered happenstance when we want to prove one thing, but focused and restrictive when we want to prove another. I think Greer has a point, but there must be better arguments.

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