Through a Glass Darkly
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
1 Corinthians 13
When the Apostle Paul wrote the above words he was acknowledging that, even he, in spite of his magnificent intellectual and spiritual gifts, could not see the future in detail. But that does not mean that he was blind, he could see an outline as to what the future may look like. (Scholars tell us that a better translation uses the word ‘mirror’ rather than ‘glass’ as in window pane. However, the lesson is the same — the future is blurry.)
So it is for us with climate change. No one know exactly how it will play out in detail. But the general trajectory is clear — atmospheric temperatures are rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, species are going extinct at an alarming rate and the forests are being destroyed. There is no way in which our current way of life can survive these changes unscathed. Nevertheless, if we are to develop a suitable response to climate change and other Age of Limits predicaments we have to attempt to forecast the future, at least in outline.
At this page we consider some of the reasons for being modest and cautious when it come to making predictions.
I never make predictions, and I never will
Consider the following image of a fogged-up window. When we first look at the picture all that we see is a blur. But, on closer inspection, we see that there are railings, a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline, and the harder we look the more we can see. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and specific predictions are often wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading. Therefore, although we must be cautious and modest about predictions, we still have a responsibility to think about what that future holds, and to have the courage to take action based on our understanding.
An additional difficulty to do with predicting the future is selecting the time frame. Is “the future” tomorrow, a week from now, five years away or a generation out? The further away it is, the less accurate our predictions will be. We can say with confidence that tomorrow will be much like today, and that the world five years from now will probably not be too different from what it is now. But beyond that the future looks increasingly hazy. After all, who would have predicted as little as ten years ago the impact that social media and mobile phones have already had on the lives of billions of people?
The future is not what it used to be
There is no shortage of failed predictions to illustrate the fogginess of the future. Here are three examples.
Toward the end of December each year it is customary us to make predictions for the coming year. I wonder how many people predicted the following in December 2019.
That within just three months the world would be engulfed in an uncontrollable pandemic that would infect millions and cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
There would be no vaccine or other means of effectively containing the disease.
In the United States alone, tens of millions of people would find themselves suddenly without work, and thousands of small businesses would close.
Whole industries, such as commercial air flights, cruise vacations and shopping centers would experience dramatic, and often near-fatal, declines.
The shale oil industry would decline almost to a point of collapse.
Once more in the United States, Confederate statues that had stood for over a century would be summarily removed.
Yet every one of these events took place.
The need for humility and caution when it comes to predicting the future is personal (see the post My Journey). I started to take an interest in ‘Age of Limits’ issues around the year 2010. This was the time when the ‘Peak Oil’ meme had a high profile. The situation appeared to be obvious.
The supply of oil in the earth’s crust is finite.
We extract the easy, low-cost oil first.
Therefore extraction costs steadily rise.
Hence we will see a steady increase in the price of oil, along with shortages and supply limitations.
The chart below shows the price of crude oil in dollars per barrel between the years 2004 and 2018. We can see how these predictions played out.
From 2004 to 2014 the price rose quite steadily, as expected, from $40 to $105 (except for a dip in 2008, presumably caused by the recession at that time). When linearized, the price increased at around $6.50 per annum for that time period. Based on this trend, the price could be expected to be around $125/bbl in the year 2018.
However, what actually happened was that in the year 2014 the price dropped sharply so that by the year 2018 it was actually $45/bbl. Since then the price has drifted up such that in mid 2021 it is around $70 per barrel.
Nicole Foss has studied Age of Limits issues — particularly its financial aspects — in depth, and her analyses are insightful. But — and there’s always a ‘but’ — in the year 2012 in the post 40 ways to lose your future, she wrote,
Ordinary people are unlikely to be able to afford oil products AT ALL within 5 years.
Ten years after her prediction, the traffic on our local roads is as bad as ever. (The 40 points in her article are built around the assumption that systemic deflation is about to occur. Her predictions may well turn out to be correct, but the timing was premature.)
The peak oil community did not recognize two issues that contributed to this price drop. The first issue was the aggressive development of tight oil in the United States using the drilling technique known as “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing). For a few years, this business venture put a lot of new crude oil on the market, thus holding down prices. Moreover, the government of Saudi Arabia responded by opening up their production in order to ensure that the tight oil business was not profitable. In this they were successful. By the year 2020 the tight oil business was in steep decline.
The second issue that the peak oil community missed was the fact that high oil prices depress the world’s economies. Because oil is so fundamental to our way of life an increase in the price of oil means that consumers cannot afford to buy as many products as they could before, so the price of oil goes down.
The fact that forecasts are incorrect cuts both ways. For example, in spite of the comments we have just made to do with Peak Oil, the issue has not gone away. The statement that “there is only so much oil in the ground, and when it is gone it is gone” remains true. We now understand that Peak Oil is not to do with running out of oil, it is about running out of affordable oil (see the post Alice, the Red Queen and ERoEI). Therefore, if the oil companies are to justify investing money in projects that have declining Energy Returned on Energy Invested then the price of oil will have to increase. The collapse in the price of oil means that energy companies cannot afford to look for new sources of crude oil, so it is quite possible that shortages in the supply of oil will take place in coming years and that oil prices will increase. Therefore, forecasts of shortages and drastic price increases were not necessarily wrong, they are may simply have been premature.
M. King Hubbert was one of the great original thinkers to do with the finite nature of resources such as crude oil. His 1956 paper was seminal. Yet even his predictions could be in error. For example, in the paper he seems to take it for granted that there will be a smooth transition from oil as a source of energy to nuclear power. We know now that such a transition did not happen, and is not likely to happen.
One of the themes of this site is that we are looking at extremely complex systems, with all kinds of feedback loops that we either do not understand, or whose existence we have not even identified. Systems thinking is tricky; humility is called for. (The distinction between the words complicated and complex is explained in the post Safety Moment #62: From Complicated to Complex.)
Going back to the fuzzy image, the “glass darkly”, we conclude that we cannot see the future in detail. But we can see an outline. So it is with the Age of Limits. What does the future hold in store for us? In detail, we do not know, and we are foolish when we make specific predictions. Nevertheless, we can see an outline of where we are going. It is remotely possible that some deus ex machina — a new technology that no one had anticipated — could come along and save us all. But, discounting such a miraculous intervention, we can say with some confidence that all of the factors in the chart are going to cause great setbacks and suffering. We can also predict that people will be looking for spiritual solace in this new world.