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by Steve McKinlay
13 April 2005, Wellington


Realism is the philosophical notion that what our scientific theories tell us about the world are more or less, or approximately true. Scientific theories are generally considered to be the pinnacle of human knowledge. Although ultimately fallible and always up for revision the scientific method for discovering knowledge has, certainly in the West been shown to be instrumentally reliable. If the “realist” gets ill, the “realist” is more likely to visit a medical doctor than a soothsayer or faith healer.

Normatively then we might argue at least that being a realist is a position one might hold if one believes that the knowledge forwarded by our best theories is more or less or at least approximately true. Of course this claim also presupposes that we look toward science for answers to questions we might have about the natural world. To some extent being a realist is a matter of pragmatics. Panglosian arguments held by politicians and economists may serve to comfort us but such reassurances rarely stand up to logical scrutiny, natural laws or scientific evidence.

Optimists amongst us are plentiful, and their reassurances are familiar however, merely wishing or hoping something to be true, particularly in the face of evidence to the contrary, doesn’t make it true. We might call this position “mirage realism”. We explain and present two examples but first some background.

Oil production worldwide is close to peaking. That is, we are close to the point where the all time maximum amount of oil can be pumped from the ground. After this point it is expected that oil production will decline at a rate between 3% and 7% per annum (suggested by the empirical evidence provided from existing oil fields that are already in decline). The evidence for “peak oil” as it is called is indisputable. Oil production in a variety of regions and states that are now in decline can be predictably graphed as a bell shaped curve. The first significant example was when the United States peaked in 1971. More recently the North Sea, with Norway close at its heels have peaked and are in permanent decline. Collectively the world will follow soon.

A prominent mirage realist to emerge in recent weeks is Larry Baldock, transport spokesperson for the United Future NZ party. Mr Baldock proudly announced his plans to lay asphalt in the form of a big wide double laned freeway from Kaitaia to Invercargill. Either Larry Baldock is ignorant to the issue of peak oil, an issue that the prestigious Deutsche Bank argued last December ought to be of primary concern to forward looking politicians and company chiefs, or he is wishing it will simply go away. His ignorance does not excuse his culpability but to the mirage realist bullshit is bitumen – sadly under the spectre of peak oil a single cent spent on such a project is an investment in an infrastructure that has no future. We suggest a name change for Baldock’s party. United No Future.

Yet another mirage realist to stick his neck out this week was National’s Bryan Sinclair, Special Advisor to Don Brash leader of the opposition. We think Don Brash ought to consider seriously any future advice from Mr Sinclair given this comment in an email exchange on the subject of peak oil.

«…we would be happy to receive any material (from you or from anybody else) suggesting that the forms of alternative energy that are developed (and there are obviously a number of these, already in development, including solar powered road vehicles and hydrogen powered road vehicles, but two examples) will somehow reduce the need for proper roading.» (Bryan Sinclair, April 2005)

We can only assume Mr Sinclair has decided not to participate in our knowledge society (at least certainly not the knowledge society that is predicated by any received rendering of logic).

Consider the following. Given that spaghetti junction is already gridlocked (every rush hour) with internal combustion engine vehicles, and Mr Sinclair seems to be arguing that either a demand or supply reduction in oil would not reduce the requirement for building more roads it follows that if we do not build more roads, spaghetti junction will become gridlocked with hydrogen and/or solar powered vehicles.  Mr Sinclair’s mirage realism seems to extend to the ridiculous myth that the endless expansion of global economies is physically possible. Sinclair seems confident that human ingenuity combined with market forces will meet any forthcoming energy crunch or environmental emergency.

The futuristic scenario from mirage realist Bryan Sinclair will never occur because the energy equation for both hydrogen and photovoltaic solar cells results in marginal if not negative net energy returns. It takes more oil equivalent energy to make a solar cell than the cell ever returns in its lifetime. Hydrogen requires large amounts of natural gas, which we are currently running out of.

The demand for roads is directly connected to oil and the internal combustion engine. Less oil will result in less demand for roads. As oil becomes expensive and scarce and as we experience shortages, much to the National Party’s dismay cars will disappear from roads.

The godfather of mirage realism has to be the International Energy Agency (IEA) whom in the face of recent prices near US$60 a barrel oil, claims by OPEC that they are pumping at capacity, evidence that the mighty Saudi Arabian fields are peaking still hope and wish that oil will peak in 2037.

However just in case, the IEA are preparing a special report due to be released in a week or two that aims to prepare member nations (which includes NZ) about the need for urgent and extreme energy conservation measures if the worlds oil supply is disrupted or reduced by one to two million barrels per day (we currently consume 84 million barrels per day). Such bizarre measures suggested by the IEA include bans on privately owned motor vehicles, reduction of the working week and imposition of lower speed limits.

New Zealand’s energy minister, the Hon Trevor Mallard, currently frantically keen to comply with the IEA’s strategic 90 reserve day requirement by building dozens more oil storage silos will want to seriously consider the IEA’s latest report since he will be the one breaking the news to New Zealanders that “Carless Days” is not a Mexican folk singer.


Steve McKinlay for
Powerless NZ
13 April 2005


More information about global peak oil and resource depletion can be found at http://ontic.blogspot.com.

PowerLess NZ is a growing group of scientists, energy analysts and concerned citizens whose principle objectives are to alert both Government and the general public to New Zealand’s looming energy crisis. Our aim is to support development of renewable energy resources at both a private and public level, as well as encourage a firm move away from dependence upon fossil fuels.