End or No End?
In “Squeezing More Oil from the Ground,” Leonardo Maugeri, director of strategies and development of an international oil company, expresses the conventional view of his profession, assuming a world of near-infinite oil resources to be produced under market forces. Maugeri is particularly dismissive of our Scientific American article “The End of Cheap Oil” [March 1998]. It is difficult to find fault with at least its title, considering that the average price of oil over the preceding 10 years was $28 a barrel but rose to $45 over the ensuing decade to reach a peak of almost $150 in 2008.
Given the central place of oil-based energy in the modern world, it is critically important that governments should base their policies on realistic depletion profiles, despite ambiguous definitions and lax reporting practices. Decline typically commences at about midpoint of depletion, as already exemplified in more than 50 countries. World discovery peaked in the 1960s and must deliver a corresponding peak of production. A debate rages as to the precise date of peak but misses the point when what matters is the vision of the long decline on the other side of it.
Founder, Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas
President, ASPO France
MAUGERI REPLIES: It seems to me that the conventional view about oil has become precisely the one proposed by Campbell and Laherrère: that the world is heading toward peak production. In my article, I never say that oil is bound to last forever. Instead I warn against those who affirm to know when its production will peak, because no one can calculate the future derivate of an unknown stock. This is simply a nonscientific approach to the issue, as proved by the repeated mistakes in their calculations about the “peak” period. In fact, we still don’t know that much about the subsurface inner secrets, nor do we know the exact oil endowment of our planet.
As to the issue of cheap oil, we should agree on the meaning of “cheap.” What appears expensive today could be much cheaper in the future, thanks to the advancement of technology. The negative psychology created by unjustified alarmism about peak oil continues to introduce instability and volatility in the market, harming any concept of sustainable development because uncertainty could determine a sort of “energy investment paralysis.”
Feed the World
The agricultural industry may see biotechnology as an important part of farming’s future, as four biotech executives say in “Biotech’s Plans to Sustain Agriculture.” But the evidence is not very strong for this very biased viewpoint. The opposite is described very well in the study “Failure to Yield,” by the Union of Concerned Scientists (www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture). That the problem is one of distribution more than production is highlighted by the fact that Americans throw away enough usable food to feed all the hungry in Africa. And although DNA-marker-assisted breeding seems to be helpful to increase yields, gene insertion seems to be much less useful.
“Failure to Yield” concluded that genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn have not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the past 13 years, the report found, was largely attributable to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.
Biotechnology companies maintain that genetic engineering is essential to boost agricultural productivity. The UCS report debunks that claim, concluding that genetic engineering is unlikely to play a significant role in increasing food production in the foreseeable future.
The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies and universities increase research and development for proven approaches to boost crop yields. Those approaches should include modern conventional plant-breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant up-front costs. The report also recommends that U.S. food aid organizations make these more promising and affordable alternatives available to farmers in developing countries.
Last, the insect-resistant cotton Monsanto sold to Indian farmers turned out to be susceptible to disease, causing loss of harvest and thousands of suicides.
Regarding Gary Stix’s cover story, “Turbocharging the Brain,” at age 40 (nine years ago) I was a physical and mental wreck: I was way overweight, and my mathematical abilities seemed to be deteriorating. I found a magic pill that lowered my weight (by 20 percent) and my blood pressure and cholesterol (both now “normal”), revitalized my you-know-what drive, and made my mind stronger than ever. The pill I started taking: triathlon!
Alexander H. Slocum
Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Michael Shermer’s Skeptic column, “Captain Hook meets Adam Smith,” makes the common mistake about “anarchy” that it signifies disorder in social relations and the rule of the strongest by violence. Anarchy does not mean “social disorder.” It means “no chief or ruler.” Our common ignorance of the true meaning of anarchy persuades us that we need a violent Hobbesian state to “keep us all in awe.” We might have a better aspiration for our future evolution.
Hugo du Coudray
Portland State University