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Quora Answer : Is The Olduvai Gorge Theory True Or Just A Scare Tactic for Political, Financial, and Social Power?

Oct 17, 2017

It's a real theory.

I mean, it's probably not just made up by some power to scare you unnecessarily or for the power to maintain itself.

It's one of several theories by concerned people with some expertise, trying to apply their modelling skills to predicting human history.

Like most such attempts, throughout the ages, (including a large chunk of economics), the models can be quite clever and plausible. But human history is incredibly complex and no-one who builds models has access to all the information about how the world is and will be. And this can lead to specific forecasts being wrong.

Let's take peak oil. Peak oil is clearly true in some sense. There is a finite amount of oil on Earth, laid down over millions of years, we are consuming it faster than it's being produced, and we will eventually have to face running out. That is an inescapable fact. On the way to "running out" we'll hit the "peak" ie. the moment when oil was cheapest, in terms of energy used to extract it, compared to energy extracted, after which it is "downhill" (each new barrel of oil produced costs more oil to produce it than the previous one).

Calculating when we hit the peak is much trickier. Any particular curve / prediction makes a lot of assumptions about the technology used to extract it. If we invent a new technology that makes it cheaper. Or gives us access to previously inaccessible oil. This will change the curve's shape. It will fatten or thin. It will slide left or right. Perhaps five years ago we passed the peak. But fracking just pushed the peak forward by another 20 years. Or maybe global warming makes Arctic oil reserves available that push it another 50 years forward.

None of these factors actually changes the underlying truth that the oil is finite. But they can make it "somebody else's problem". (Namely your children's)

Now, as I understand it, Richard C. Duncan gets his model not by considering oil production deeply, just looking at existing figures for energy produced per person. He discovers that this has already peaked.

Of course, simply building a model based on historical data can't tell him anything about the surprises due to new technological innovations. His model will be caught out by them.

And, in fact, from a brief glance at his paper, and its references to other people in the "peak stuff" literature, it seems to me that they spend too much of their time worrying about the detailed model fitting and comparisons, when self-evidently new technologies or other societal changes can knock their detailed forecasts way off course.

But the basic principle that our civilization is built of finite consumable resources is clearly true. And however you finesse it, at some point our society has to learn to adapt itself to sustainability : to consuming only its yearly solar energy budget and only using materials that can be cradle-to-cradle infinitely cycled. We either figure out how to make the kind of comfortable society we like fit within those constraints. Or, the predictive part of Olduvai Theory kicks in and civilization will crash back to a level of technology simple enough to fit within those constraints.

Even if you think our destiny is eventually to mine the asteroids and spread across the stars, it's still going to take a long time to get there. And the self-discipline of sustainability is going to be essential for our civilization to survive long enough to reach that technological level, and even more so, to actually manage those interstellar colony-ships.

It's never too early to start thinking about how to achieve sustainability and running civilization within a finite rather than ever-growing budget

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