In 1798 Robert Thomas Malthus published the first edition of his famous “Essay on Population”, arguing that it was in the nature of populations to increase until constrained by famine or disease. He therefore questioned the widely-held idea that human society would always improve, arguing that there were “Limits to Growth”, as the Club of Rome would put it 170 years later.
Malthus’s ideas carried some weight, and indeed were integral to Darwin’s principle of “The survival of the fittest”. If population is limited by available resources, then obviously those individuals best fitted to gaining a share of those resources are more likely to survive and procreate.
So far as I can see, Malthus was wise enough to avoid putting a date on his predicted disaster. But others following in his footsteps have been less circumspect. Paul Ehrlich in 1968 predicted widespread famine in the 1970s, with hundreds of millions dying. He offered to take even money that “England would not exist by 2000”. In 1974 he predicted that world oil supplies would last for only 35 years at the (then) current rate of consumption. Yet here were are 38 years later, with oil consumption increasing, and the USA expecting to become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020.
But of course there have been zillions of people predicting the end of the world. Indeed I believe that right now many people believe an alleged prediction of the Mayan calendar that the world will end this year, before Christmas. We can say one thing for certain about all these predictions (as with the predictions of Malthus and Ehrlich). They have all failed. Perhaps a quick course from The Rational Optimist would be in order.
I’d like to invite you to participate in a thought experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that we’re with a group of charcoal burners around 1750. As it happens, I claim descent from a charcoal-burner named Purkiss, who lived in the New Forest in the year 1100. He found the body of King William Rufus, shot by an arrow (whether accidentally or by design). Purkiss used his charcoal-burner’s wagon to transport the body of the King to Winchester. But that’s another story.
While both coal and charcoal had been known since ancient times, charcoal in the mid 1700s was an important fuel. Our charcoal burners might well have been worrying about the continued availability of wood for charcoal. They could have been concerned about the amount of wood going to the Navy for ships. And about the increasing demand for charcoal. They probably didn’t foresee the overwhelming development of coal, which would soon be associated with the Industrial Revolution. They could not have foreseen the 20th century use of oil for transportation. They had never seen an electric light, or a hydro project (beyond the local water-mill). They could not have conceived of nuclear power — or indeed solar PV.
So any speculation they might have made about energy sources in a hundred years time, or longer, would have been hopelessly ill-informed, and quite meaningless.
In our day, technology is moving far faster than in the Eighteenth Century. It would be absurdly presumptuous for politicians today to be worrying about energy in the very long term. We should, instead, be worrying about keeping the lights on, and keeping our energy costs competitive, in the next couple of decades.
And today the news is good. We have a revolution in energy. Nigel Lawson is saying that the potential of shale gas and oil in the UK is greater than that of the North Sea. Professor Alan Riley of City University London believes that the early 21st century transition to shale gas is as important as the early 20th century transition from coal to oil. At a conservative estimate, we have gas for fifty years — and probably much longer.
Yet I still get eejits writing to me saying “Yes, but what will you do in fifty years? We must invest in renewables now, for when fossil fuels run out”. (In fifty years, I should think I’ll be rotting down nicely, by the way). But these people are wrong, even in their own terms. The renewables we have today are hopelessly inefficient. But there is some hope that solar PV (if not wind) may be competitive in a decade or two. So if we invest now, we shall look back in twenty years, and fifty years, and wonder why we wasted billions on generating technologies which by then will be utterly uneconomic and obsolete.
Even if we fear the end of fossil fuels in a few decades, we should plan to commit to alternatives when they’re needed, and when they’re competitive — not today. But the chances are, they won’t be needed at all. The energy company Schlumberger estimates that methane hydrates contain more energy potential than all other known fossil fuels put together. Extraction techniques for methane hydrates are being developed. So the first answer to the question “What will you do in fifty years?” is methane hydrates. Followed by nuclear fusion, which promises effectively unlimited supplies of affordable electricity, with virtually no emissions or radioactive waste. OK, I’ve heard all the jokes that “nuclear fusion is always forty years away”, but much progress has been made, and we must pursue the technology.
It’s time to stop worrying about the end of fossil fuels. After all, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. But it’s a good time to start worrying about energy costs and competitiveness, before we force energy-intensive industries to decamp abroad, taking their jobs and their investment with them.