2014 news on peak oil, resource scarcity, etc.

I had a little bit of free time after church on Sunday and decided to see if there was any interesting resource extraction news I had missed in the past few months. Here is what I found.

A January 2014 article in the journal Energy reexamined a group of 10-year oil production scenarios proposed in 2004. A comparison of the scenarios to available figures shows that global conventional oil production peaked in 2005, with additional peaks from 2008-2011 for broader definitions of “conventional oil”. The article is available open access for anyone to examine the math, but it looks rather solid to me. Cheap oil is already in decline. So, why does oil production appear to be stable, or even increase? This is due to artificially increased production from a short-term burst of capital expenditures, as well as the explosion in shale gas, tight oil, and easily transportable liquified natural gas, which are usually improperly labeled as conventional oil in media and industry reports. The optimistic (industry) view is that these new sources, combined with decreased demand in the post-industrial West, will be able to keep things humming for some decades while more renewable options (or nuclear developments) are worked out. On the pessimistic side, John Michael Greer considers these options to simply be delaying the inevitable for a decade at most. In any case, there can no longer be any doubt that we are in the peak oil era.

On April 10, the Club of Rome released a book on peak mining, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. I have not read it yet, but based on what I have heard about peak mining so far, I expect that it will reveal a hidden crisis. The geopolitical consequences should be fairly obvious. In a peak oil world, oil exporters have political leverage, which is why Saudi Arabia was treated with kid gloves after 9/11 and the sanctions against Russia’s Crimea actions were basically symbolic. Mining has even sharper consequences: if one country should control the world’s supply of a basic element, the only options for industrialized nations are to give in to political demands or suffer massive economic damage.

In March the WTO ruled that China has been imposing illegal tariffs on rare earths. China controls over 90% of the world’s rare earth reserves used for making cell phones etc., and by restricting its exports temporarily quadrupled the price of rare earths outside China in 2011, causing some manufacturers to relocate their major operations to China. The WTO ruling was appealed on April 18 and we have yet to see whether China will actually abide by it: the quote offered to reporters, “No matter what the result of the appeal is, China’s policy goal of protecting resources and the environment will not change,” is not encouraging. It is interesting that the international ruling “prohibiting” Japanese whaling, which resulted in a mere reduction of the year’s catch from 380 heads to 210 heads, was blanketed all over the airwaves despite its economic irrelevance, while the international ruling against China is met with popular disinterest, although I am sure Western governments are watching it closely. Whales are at least in theory a renewable resource; rare earths are not.

In financial news, last year we heard that the Dodd-Frank financial reform was a death knell for American small banks and had homogenized our financial system. In March of this year, the IMF reported that these changes were likely to become permanent because there is no real way to avoid them. This basically means that the Western financial system is extremely fragile and there is no way to tell what the impact of another economic bubble could be. It is interesting to note that China and Japan have adopted a radically different approach to their financial systems, but I cannot find a really reliable article about that at the moment.

Anyway, that’s all I got for now… I’ll continue to be on the lookout for reliable information about this.

[An earlier version of this post focused on “too big to fail” subsidies, but our knowledge of these subsidies’ impact is somewhat speculative.]

Posted: April 21st, 2014 | Signs of the Times 6 Comments »

Comparative religionists mock both believers and constructionists

A religious studies blog I follow, Religious Studies Project, has a rather telling April Fool’s joke today. Since they might delete it after April 1, I will take the liberty of quoting the whole post here.

BREAKING NEWS: Today, the RSP is “born again” – as the Theological Dispatch.

Due to a huge donation from the Templeton Foundation, we are now going in a slightly different direction. As of today, our mandate is to investigate how religion and spirituality brings positive change to society, and helps make us all better citizens of God’s world. We shall not rest until the Christian and the Muslim can go on a date together in a Chinese restaurant without fear of criticism.

It’s time to admit that spirituality is REAL. We hereby disown our previous cowardly epistemological agnosticism and cynical critical thinking. From here on in, our only theory is Truth, and our only method is Faith. God will be remembered long after Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are forgotten.

Donald Wiebe got it right, there is no future for the religious studies. But there is advertising revenue for theology.

Since this is a joke, the bloggers (mostly Ph.D. candidates, I believe) must think that the idea that “spirituality is REAL” is amusing in some way. That might sound like a harsh generalization, but this was the general attitude of my undergraduate classmates, who openly mocked religious groups at parties etc., and I am aware that this was also the fashion at several other undergraduate religious studies programs. Considering that someone who chooses to do a doctorate program in religious studies must be somehow attracted to the state of the academy, I think it is probably fair to say that the Ph.D. candidates writing for this blog find spirituality amusing.

Here is another joke: “As of today, our mandate is to investigate how religion … helps make us all better citizens of God’s world.” I would deeply respect someone who offered this as a mission statement for a book, even an academic publication. After all, the idea that the world does not belong to us alone, that it is “God’s world”, is something it is hard to be neutral on. A past generation of religious scholars, including Huston Smith, often embraced something like this sentiment. The current generation, though, is generally critical of this, and of any sentiment towards the world. The only truly scholarly attitude, they have learned, is an alienated one.

For example, Mama Lola, a sympathetic account of a scholar’s acceptance by a voodoo community that verges on a statement of personal belief, was published in 1991. Could a similar book be published today? An example of an academic publication recently reviewed at Religious Studies Project is Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict, which consists of a list of assertions like “people are nicer when they are being watched” and “as groups increase in size and social complexity, belief in ‘Big Gods’ or moralizing Gods increases”. It is a mystery to me how the author of this book would engage with Porphyry, Jayadeva, or Zhuangzi. But I do not think there is any attempt at understanding here, only the self-assured superiority to all human feeling that comes with “scientific” knowledge. The spirit of Mama Lola has been totally purged from the academy, which is why the Templeton Foundation gets the scholars’ scorn.

Finally, the post gets in a good-natured dig at Timothy Fitzgerald and Russell T. McCutcheon, two scholars who question the validity of the scholarly concept of “world religions”. It is true that both Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are atheists, which prompts the joke “God will be remembered long after Fitzgerald and McCutcheon are forgotten,” an… uh… imitation of Christians’ attitudes towards Nietzsche, Darwin, etc. But it seems like the author of the post does not really understand the practical meaning of constructionism. By putting into question the tools that scholars use to compare cultures, Fitzgerald and McCutcheon actually doubt the methodological superiority of scholars to believers, which is why McCutcheon calls for an open confession of atheism on the part of scholars. In fact, the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton made the basic constructivist argument long before Wilfred Cantwell Smith, when he expressed his skepticism of the comparative methodology employed by H.G. Wells:

[Religious studies] seeks to classify Jesus … by inventing a new class for the purpose and filling up the rest of it with stop-gaps and second-rate copies. I do not mean that these other things are not often great things in their own real character and class. Confucianism and Buddhism are great things, but it is not true to call them Churches; just as the French and English are great people, but it is nonsense to call them nomads. There are some points of resemblance between Christendom and its imitation in Islam; for that matter there are some points of resemblance between Jews and Gypsies. But after that the lists are made up of anything that comes to hand; of anything that can be put in the same catalogue without being in the same category.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (1925)

The post concludes with a joke that sounds slightly somber: “Donald Wiebe got it right, there is no future for the religious studies.” As my grandma likes to say, “with every joke, there’s a meaning.”

Posted: April 1st, 2014 | Secular-Religious 8 Comments »