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Self-Defeating Prophecies (unintendedconsequenc.es)
53 points by paulorlando 59 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments



>The end of oil as a resource has been predicted many times over the past century, including 1909, 1937, 1945, 1966, 1972, 1980, and 2007. Each time, the end was paired with attempts to move industrial use to other fuel types. But with the exception of a few price shocks, the adjusted price of oil only slightly trends upward over the last 70 years. This, in spite of demand that definitely trends upward over the same period. Where is the end? Did the belief that oil use was going to end lead to new methods of exploration and production?

Well, that and wars to get cheaper control of more oil resources (the cost of which wars is not factored in to the cost of oil, as they're fought with public money). Plus more effective extraction while piling externalities to the environment, e.g. by fracking (the costs of which externalities is also not factored in).

In the end, though, oil, is a finite resource.


> In the end, though, oil, is a finite resource.

That's what they said in the Paleozoic era after the first oil was created.


Heh, touché. On a geological scale fossil fuels aren’t the finite resource, we are.


> In the end, though, oil, is a finite resource.

Exactly. And it's not the only finite resource we depend on. And the "steady growth", expected by effectively all of the economists and politicians, speeds up the exhaustion of the resources (the amount of the resources thus used is an "exponential function").

Worth considering this example:

"Bacteria in bottles -- Professor Albert A Bartlett"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73xdpoQFLQk

Apparently, we've already past the point of using one half of all easily used oil reserves. But, aren't we lucky, we've found whole "3 new bottles":

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_shale_reserves

It's worth watching the whole talk: "Dr Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy"

As he introduces it: "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."


Actual bacteria in actual bottles grow exponentially only for a brief period. The grow slows down to cubic, quadratic, linear as the limiting factors become space, area on the bottom of the bottle, height of the culture. Frankly, I see no value in a talk about a toy model that doesn't apply to the real world at all.


> Actual bacteria in actual bottles grow exponentially only for a brief period

Exactly. Because the resources are limited. Then look at graph of the total amount of energy that humanity uses:

https://www.e-education.psu.edu/earth104/node/1347

Is that sustainable? The gedanken experiment is exactly to demonstrate unsustainbility of “permanent growth” on which our politicians and economists depend on, nothing more.

The question was: when will the single “bacteria” stop thinking “there’s so much more space to grow”? At 11:59? At 11:58 when there’s 3/4ths of the bottle still empty? Etc.


> Exactly.

So, the bottle wasn't half full at 11:59. What was the guy's point again?

> Is that sustainable?

I don't know. I can't predict the future any more than you can. But I can tell you one thing: this is not exponential growth. Exponential curves don't have bumps. I would guess this is the superposition of multiple logistic functions.

There is one thing, though, that is sustainable for at least 4 billion years: 15 billion people who consume as much energy as Americans do today. (compare http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/) It doesn't look as if we'll ever reach 10 billion.

> “permanent growth” on which our politicians and economists depend on

Politicians don't, they just argue with it. Because if people demand more free stuff and lower taxes, the only way to get reelected is to argue that a much better future is just around the corner and borrow the money. That never happens, of course, but thanks to inflation, anything expressed in money looks as if did indeed grow exponentially, and everybody got their free lunch, and taxes didn't get raised, but everybody is poorer for it somehow anyway.

But Economists... I don't know why anyone ever listens to them. Nobody else can be so consistently wrong and still have such a devoted audience. When Physicists are in an argument, they run an experiment and settle it. Economists don't, they split into different schools who are all somehow right. (There's a reason why there is no Nobel Prize for Economics.)

> when will the single “bacteria” stop thinking... At 11:58 when there’s 3/4ths of the bottle still empty?

Bacteria don't think, they grow as long as they have nutrients. The exponential growth phase ends minutes into the experiment, as soon as the bacteria form a clump through which nutrients can't diffuse during one generation anymore. Minutes from the beginning of the experiment, not from the end! That's why the beginning, and only the beginning, of a logistic curve looks exponential.

Which means the bottle wasn't 1/4 filled at 11:58, it was 1/4 filled after about 1/4 of the total time. Yes, the thought experiment is this misleading, and that's exactly why Bartlett talks about it but never runs it.


No, such detailed analysis of the way the actual bacteria grow is just a distraction. His point is that the "steady growth" is not sustainable. Whereas by analyzing how the actual bacteria behaves, we can easily see, as you say, that the "steady growth" in nature is, unsurprisingly, not sustainable.

And the "thinking" bacteria is of course not what actually exists, it's a way to try to let the listener compare that inevitability (the end of the "growth" phase) with the state of the human society and the point of view of the individual.

> Politicians don't, they just argue with it. Because if people demand more free stuff and lower taxes, the only way to get reelected is to argue that a much better future is just around the corner and borrow the money. That never happens, of course, but thanks to inflation, anything expressed in money looks as if did indeed grow exponentially, and everybody got their free lunch, and taxes didn't get raised, but everybody is poorer for it somehow anyway.

What is currently happening in the world is not coming out of the inflation, but from the "steady growth" in the use of the natural resources. Which are finite. Once it gets really tighter with the resources, it will really get ugly and no "inflation" will be able to hide that fact. There will be less of the actually available "stuff" and the "stuff" will be more expensive. Such basic "stuff" as "food."

Think about it: "we managed to increase the agricultural output so predictions of the increased hunger in the world didn't come true" etc. But how? Simply by spending more hydrocarbon-stored energy to produce the food. Only: 1) the stored hydrocarbon energy resources are limited. 2) We'll most probably irreversibly destroy the atmosphere balance as we know it even before we use up all the stored hydrocarbons. And the other effects are also easy to imagine. "Steady growth" is simply not sustainable.

Once again:

https://www.e-education.psu.edu/earth104/sites/www.e-educati...


Bacteria use chemical signals to communicate such conditions, they do not exactly work as single organisms any more than one of your cells do. They form colonies.

Might be that humans also are a kind of colony organism if you squint just right.


>Exactly. And it's not the only finite resource we depend on. And the "steady growth", expected by effectively all of the economists and politicians, speeds up the exhaustion of the resources (the amount of the resources thus used is an "exponential function").

I'm also not sure our "renewable" sources will help us. Their production, transportation, installation, maintenance extraction of necessary materials, etc, for them and their supporting infrastructure, is largely dependent on oil energy as well. And with everything factored in, it's more than they currently give back.


Wherever you want to maintain “growth” you’ll eventually hit the limit of the finiteness of the resources. “Growth” is simply not sustainable. Like you write in another comment it’s basic math.


Have you tried to replicate the bottle experiment?


Replicate? It’s a thought experiment.


Even better, the result is based on pure math.

It doesn't need experimental replication, it's provably so.

(It doesn't even need any special proof, anymore than 10+34 = 44 needs a proof of its own. It's basic calculus).


In https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principia_Mathematica the conclusion that 1+1=2 appears only at page 379. It was a hard proof ;-)


That's only true if you take a pretty arcane definition of 1 and 2, BTW. In modern axiomatizations of mathematics, as well as Peano's 19th-century axiomatization of arithmetic, the definitions of 1 and 2 are simpler, and the proofs that 1+1=2 take a couple lines.


Scott Adams has something he calls the “The Adams Law of Slow-Moving Disasters”; i.e. if we can see a problem coming from far ahead, we’ve always been able to fix it in time to avoid it.

* http://blog.dilbert.com/2013/04/15/fact-checking-adams-law-o...


Slow-moving disasters tend to end up as "devil take the hindmost"; afterwards the best off survivors can say it was fine but not everybody made it.

Personally I'd call the war in Yemen a resource/population one, and there's arguments that this applies more broadly across the middle east conflicts.


On the other hand Iain M. Banks had "out of context problems" which arrive in civilizations "like a full stop in a sentence."

Also William Gibbson's idea of The Jackpot is pretty relevant. All the dice can roll to six and you get a situation which you can't walk out of - so radical climate change (or even not so radical), economic depression and a fairly throaty nuclear exchange or two.

Fix that.


1) Climate change takes many years. Let me remind you of a recent one called the end of Little Ice Age. Before that, there was Medieval Warm Period. The one currently happening is unprecedented but likely not impossible to adapt to, nor fix on century lengths. It will be more painful the longer we let it run though.

2) Big nuclear exchanges? Nuclear exchanges as projected are expected to be local, we don't even have enough nukes to raze all major cities.

3) Economic depression has happened multiple times so far. With various interesting results, from World War II to Computer Era. :)

The closest thing I can think of is "Rock Falls, Everyone Dies". Generally a rock moving at km/s from out of Solar System. Last time this happened dinosaurs got extinct.

The other one is a nearby gamma ray emitting supernova. This could sterilize most of the planet.


I was going to use nuclear war as a counterexample, but I see that he is somehow using it as a point in his favor. I find that very weird. We haven’t done jack to fix that problem, it just hasn’t happened yet.


So how do we measure this? We can’t use the existence or non-existence of nuclear war, since that’s an all-or-nothing proposition – the fact that we haven’t had a nuclear war yet does not say much about the likelihood of one occurring. So how do we measure the likelihood? Some people like to concentrate on the amount of nuclear weapons, and, by implication, argue that the likelihood is proportional to the number of nuclear weapons in the world. I am less than convinced about this reasoning. Or is it the simple number of countries which have them which matters? I don’t think so either; if, say, Norway and Iceland both acquired nuclear weapons, would nuclear war be more likely? Probably not. So you have to be careful in how you score this issue, since it’s impossible to measure directly, and easy to convince yourself you have chosen a good proxy for it, when in reality it’s merely an irrelevant factor which happens to be easy to measure.


There's been significant things done to stop nuclear war.

There are huge nonproliferation and counter-proliferation efforts going on.


Which aren't working. Did you know that India now has a fleet of SBN's?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arihant-class_submarine


There have been some efforts to make it less likely. Nothing that would outright stop it.

Nonproliferation efforts aren’t even about making it less likely. They’re only about not making it more likely.


The expansion of global trade has done more to stop nuclear war than anything else. You don't want to nuke the guy who gives you all your soybeans.


We should keep this between us, please don't let any politician read it.


> we’ve always been able to fix it in time to avoid it

...only provided those who decide can profit from the fix. There’s also “it’s hard to be aware of the problem if you profit from your non-awareness.”

Therefore: “saving the banks too big to fail” works. But saving the civilisation? In god we trust, he gave us the planet to just use it.


The term "self-defeating prophecy" implies that the prophecy itself is the cause for it not being correct. A lot of the things mentioned in this article just seem like incorrect predictions (or predictions where the cause isn't obvious).


This reminds me of my favorite Yogi Berra-ism:

"People don't go there anymore; it's too crowded."




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