by Christopher M. Quigley, B.Sc., M.M.I.I., M.A.
June 12, 2007
Integrity, intellectual honesty, courage, focus, foresight, leadership, belief in the goodness of the American people. These are descriptions that spring to mind when thinking of M. King Hubbert. He was a visionary who believed in the power of ideas and the need to use intellectual rigour to analyse and manage change. As a research geophysicist he understood the problems posed by the reality of peak oil and the cultural catastrophe that lay before humanity unless it realised the non-recurring historical nature of the growth phenomenon.
In his presentation to the House of Representatives National Energy Conservation Policy Act Hearings in 1974, he acknowledged the problems of inflation, growth and monetization, but he understood their causes like no other. The fact that these same problems still exist today, to a greater degree 34 years later, shows the lack of effectiveness and understanding in World organizations. These general problems are too important to be left to institutions alone. Everybody counts. To solve current financial crises we must have a fundamental understanding of their makeup.
I think Mr. Hubbert provided posterity a great service in spelling out some of the core problems clearly and perhaps they can help us form the framework for a debate, creating a new paradigm of human comprehension, based on intellectual integrity and excellence rather than fraud and exploitation.
All the words that follow are a synthesis of direct quotes by Mr. Hubbert:
“Without further elaboration, it is demonstrable that the exponential phase of the industrial growth which has dominated human activity during the last couple of centuries is drawing to a close. It is physically and biologically impossible for any material and energy component to follow exponential growth for more than a few tens of doublings, and most of those possible doublings have already occurred….It is inevitable that with the slowing down in the rates of physical growth cultural adjustment must be made….
It appears that the stage is now set for a critical examination of this problem, and that out of such enquiries, if a catastrophic solution can be avoided, there can hardly fail to emerge what the historian of science, Thomas S. Kuhn, called a major scientific and intellectual revolution….
A non-catastrophic solution is impossible unless society is made stable.”
M. King Hubbert. 1981
“Two Intellectual Systems: Matter-energy and the Monetary Culture“:
“The World’s present industrial civilization is handicapped by the co-existence of two universal, overlapping, and incompatible intellectual systems: the accumulated knowledge of the last four centuries of the properties and interrelationships of matter and energy; and the associated monetary culture which has evolved from folkways of prehistoric origin.
The first of these two systems has been responsible for the spectacular rise, principally during the last two centuries, of the present industrial system and is essential for its continuance. The second (monetary culture), an inheritance from the pre-scientific past, operates by rules of its own having little in common with those of the matter-energy system. Nevertheless, the monetary system, by means of a loose coupling, exercises a general control over the matter-energy system upon which it is super-imposed.
Despite their inherent incompatibilities, these two systems during the last two centuries have had one fundamental characteristic in common, namely exponential growth, which has made a reasonable stable co-existence possible. But, for various reasons, it is impossible for the matter-energy system to sustain exponential growth for more than a few tens of doublings, and this phase is almost now over. The monetary system has no such constraints, and, according to one of its fundamental rules, it must continue to grow by compound interest. This disparity between a monetary system which continues to grow exponentially and a physical system which is unable to do so leads to an increase, with time, in the ratio of money to the out-put of the physical system. THIS MANIFESTS ITSELF AS PRICE INFLATION. It appears that the stage is now set for a critical examination of this problem, and that out of such enquiries, if a catastrophic solution can be avoided, there can hardly fail to emerge what the historian of science, Thomas S. Kuhn, has called a major scientific and intellectual revolution.
I was in New York in the 30’s. I had a box seat at the depression. I can assure you it was a very educational experience. We shut down the country because of monetary reasons. We had manpower and abundant raw materials. Yet we shut the country down. We are doing the same kind of thing now but with a different material outlook. We are not in the position we were in 1929-30 with regard to the future. Then the physical system was ready to roll. This time it is not. We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geological history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again. You can only use oil once. You can only use metals once. Soon all the oil is going to be burned and all the metals mined and scattered. That is obviously a scenario of catastrophe but we have the technology. All we have to do is completely overhaul our culture and find an alternative to money. We are not starting from zero. We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. We still have great flexibility but our maneuverability will diminish with time. A NON-CATASTROPHIC SOLUTION IS IMPOSSIBLE UNLESS SOCIETY IS MADE STABLE. This means abandoning two axioms of our own culture the (current) work ethic and the idea that growth is the normal state of life. Our window of opportunity is slowly closing, at the same time, it probably requires a spiral of adversity. In other words things have to get a lot worse before they can get better. The most important thing is to get a clear picture of the situation we’re in and the outlook for the future.”
M. King Hubbert, 1974
“On The Nature Of Growth”
Submission to the House of Representatives
National Energy Conservation Policy Act Hearings
“Two terms applicable to an evolving system are of fundamental importance. These are steady state and transient state.
A system is said to be in a steady state when its various components either do not change with time, or else vary cyclically with the repetitive cycles not changing with time (i.e. the seasons). A system in a transient state is one whose various components are undergoing non-cyclical changes in magnitude, either increase or decrease.
Transition From Steady State To Transient State Due To Fossil Fuels:
By about 2 million years ago biological evolution had advanced to where the ancestors of the present human species had begun to walk upright and to use crude stone tools. At that stage this species must have existed as a member of an ecological complex and competed with other members of the complex for a share of the local solar energy essential for its existence. The energy utilizable was almost exclusively the food supply derived by the biological system from solar energy by the mechanism of photosynthesis. During the subsequent million or more years the human species progressively devised means of capturing an ever-larger supply of the available energy. In view of the slowness with which these developments must have occurred, the whole ecological system of which the human species was a member can only be regarded as comprising a slowly changing ecological steady state.
Although the pace quickened about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants and animals, a rapidly changing transient state of evolution was not possible until the large supplies of energy stored in fossil fuels began to be utilized-when the mining of coal as a continuous enterprise was begun near Newcastle in Northeast England about 9 centuries ago. This was followed as recently as 1857 in Romania and in 1859 in the United States by the exploitation of the second major source of fossil-fuel energy, petroleum.
What is most particular about the history of coal production is the large contrast between the magnitudes of the rate of coal production following the year 1800 and that, which must have prevailed during the preceding 7 centuries. From earlier statistics it can be estimated that the cumulative coal production during the eight hundred years before 1860 amounted altogether to only about 7 billion metric tons, whereas 133 billion metric tons, or 19 times as much coal, was mined during the 110-year period from 1860 to 1970.
Constraints On Growth:
In addition to supplies of energy, other constraints operate to modify growth. These constraints may be broadly classified as being ecological in nature. For more than a century it has been known in biology that if any biological species from microbes to elephants is given a favourable environment, its population will begin to increase at an exponential rate. However, it was also soon established that such a growth rate cannot long continue before retarding influences set in. In our earlier review of the rates of production of the fossil fuels it was observed that for close to a century in each case the production increased exponentially with doubling periods within the range of 8 to 16 years.
The present world population (1974) is about 4 billion, which is increasing at a rate of about 2 per cent per year, with a doubling period of about 35 years. What could have been the minimum average doubling period during the last million years? This minimum would occur if we make a wholly un-realistic assumption, namely that the population a million years ago was the biological minimum of 2. How many doublings of this original couple would be required to reach the World’s present 4 billion? Slightly less than 31. Hence, the maximum number of times the population could have doubled during the last million years would have been 31 with the average period of doubling being 32,000 years. Consequently when we compute a maximum average growth rate between the finite levels of population at a time interval of a million years, we arrive at the same conclusion, NAMELY THAT THE NORMAL STATE, THE STATE THAT PERSISTS MOST OF THE TIME, IS ONE OF AN APPROXIMATE STEADY STATE. The abnormal state of an ecological system is a rapidly changing transient or disturbed state.
To obtain an idea of how long a disturbed or transient state can persist a fundamental question that may be asked is: about how many doublings of any biological or industrial component can the earth itself tolerate? A clue to this may be obtained if we consider the problem of the grains of wheat and the chessboard. According to an ancient story from India, a king wished to reward one of his subjects for some meritorious deed. The man replied that his needs were few and he would be satisfied to receive a bit of corn. If one grain were placed on the first square of a chess board, two on the second, four on the third, and the number of grains were doubled for each successive square, he would be content to receive that amount of grain. The king ordered the board to be brought in and the grain counted out. To his consternation he found that there was not enough wheat in the kingdom. i.e. 2 to the power of 64, this amount of wheat, it turned out would be 2000 times the World’s present annual wheat crop. This may appear to be a trivial problem; its implications are actually profound. The Earth itself cannot tolerate the doubling of one grain of wheat 64 times. The same principles and the same kind of constraints apply when we are dealing with successive doublings of any other biological or industrial component. Even if there are no shortages of energy or of materials the Earth will not tolerate more than a few tens of doublings
Cultural Aspects Of The Growth Problem:
WITHOUT FURTHER ELABORATION, IT IS DEMONSTRABLE THAT THE EXPONENTIAL PHASE OF THE INDUSTRIAL GROWTH WHICH HAS DOMINATED HUMAN ACTIVITY DURING THE LAST COUPLE OF CENTURIES IS DRAWING TO A CLOSE. It is physically and biologically impossible for any material and energy component to follow exponential growth for more than a few tens of doublings, and most of those possible doublings have already occurred. Yet, during the last two centuries of unbroken industrial growth we have evolved WHAT AMOUNTS TO AN EXPONENTIAL GROWTH CULTURE. Our institutions, our legal system, our financial system, and our most cherished folkways and beliefs are all based upon the premise of continuous growth. Since physical and biological constraints make it impossible to continue such rates of growth indefinitely, it is inevitable that with the slowing down in the rates of physical growth CULTURAL ADJUSTMENTS MUST BE MADE.”
Two Intellectual Systems: Matter-energy and the Monetary Culture. M. King Hubbert 1988
On The Nature of Growth: Hearing on the National Energy Conservation Policy Act. M. King Hubbert 1974
2007 Christopher M. Quigley