Why WEAP was Rubbish

On reflection (and after considering a number of very well-informed opinions), I have concluded that the article "World Energy and Population: Trends to 2100" that I published earlier is in large measure rubbish.  I'm leaving the WEAP article up for viewing, because I still think it contains important ideas and can act as the stimulus for thought on topics that aren't getting enough attention yet.  However, as presented, the paper contains a number of egregious shortcomings that drastically limit its objective value.  This page contains my assessment of those shortcomings.

On October 17, 2007 I published the article to The Oil Drum, one of the Web's premiere Peak Oil analysis sites.  It prompted over 400 responses, some quite impassioned.  After reading the responses carefully, and defending the article as best I could, I published the following response to that thread:

This thread is one of the more intense intellectual and emotional experiences I’ve had recently, on a number of fronts.

As I expected going in, the readers of The Oil Drum are a very tough audience. If an article is presented as having technical underpinnings, they had better be correct and defensible. If an article claims to draw conclusions from technical and numerical analysis, the links from the assumptions through the analysis to the conclusions had better be explicit and defensible. This audience responds poorly to handwaving, unsubstantiated claims, sloppy logic and opinions masquerading as fact.

In retrospect I agree that my paper committed all of these epistemological sins, something many of the readers were quick to point out. Fair enough, one of the reasons I write this stuff is to learn from both the writing and the reactions. Many of the criticisms were fair, though some were worded more strongly than others.

The primary challenge was “You have not proved that straitened circumstances in global energy will result in a population crash.” And, in truth, I hadn’t. Many countries have thriving technical and industrial bases with a per-capita energy consumption that would make a Canadian throw up their hands in despair. There are no examples I can find of countries where population growth has been reduced by energy limitations alone. Making that linkage therefore required handwaving and unsubstantiated claims.

There are hints that a convergence of ecological, economic and energy crises (the 3E crisis as I call it) could result in the spread of famine and disease. Qualitative scenarios have been proposed for this, but they aren’t supportable by quantitative analysis just yet. Trying to pin such an outcome on a single factor is very hard to do. Establishing that such a single factor could precipitate an outright die-off is even harder (read, damn near impossible). Trying to objectively draw such a connection is to have one’s opinion masquerade as fact.

Finally, if a conclusion (such as “energy reductions will result in a die-off”) is logically unsupportable it means axiomatically that the logic used to arrive at it was sloppy.

So, on the terms in which I presented it, this paper has to be judged a failure. Your humble servant has to admit he’s perhaps not quite as smart as he hoped he was, and that in this case his reach exceeded his grasp.

I still think some portions of the article are useful, especially as a foundation for further thinking. The Net Oil Export crisis, for example, seems to be something we should pay a lot of attention to in the coming decade. The degree to which wind and nuclear will be able to offset the decline of oil and natural gas, what the limits on wind power development might be, and the Hobson’s Choice presented by coal deserve a lot of thought as well.

On the question of population, it has to be asked whether the 3E crisis may in fact not reduce the world’s population after all. Is it possible it might simply degrade the global quality of life to the point that we have 8 or 9 billion people living like 14th century serfs, but still reproducing enough to keep the population from falling? That would seem to be an outcome many would consider more probable than the one I presented.

Finally, are the portents of apocalypse that so many of us are starting feel so strongly rooted more in our inner world than in the outer one?

I’ve only just started re-examining my position in light of these questions, but the journey already promises to be an interesting and productive one.