Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Gravy Ain’t Wavy

My title comes from an ancient and completely extinct comic strip called Smokey Stover. Whatever the phrase meant in the strip—I’m no longer sure—it somehow came to be part of my private language as shorthand for “what I’m thinking of now is distinctly different other members of its class so don’t tell me I’m wrong about it by appealing to generalities.” A worked out example:

I’ve been listening to the debate about limits to economic growth for almost fifty years now, and I’m well aware that the Earth-friendly side of these arguments has frequently resorted to alarmist or simply invalid arguments. Back in about 1970, for example, I recall a New York Time article I read over a hangover breakfast in the famous Revolutionary Kitchen of my grad dorm. The piece predicted doom or at least inflation because of the impending shortage of nonferrous metals—that was before a decade-long collapse in prices for these commodities. I was appropriately depressed by the prospect of a zinc famine.

Political environmentalists used to speak about vanishing resources without considering the effects of increasing prices on demand for a scarce input or the possibility of substitution. It didn’t occur to them that recycling was as inevitable with rising prices as it was unlikely before it paid. And folks confronted with dollar a gallon gas and long lines at the pump suddenly began to worry if there were enough aggregate energy available to power a modern civilization. Some of these ideas seem funny in retrospect, rather like the tendency of people to think that population growth is a threat because there won’t be any place to stand. But all environmental concerns are not equal, and dismissing them all because some or even most of them are foolish or are raised in a foolish manner is an error. Anyhow, one of the reasons that the petroleum issues caught my attention some years ago is that it isn’t just environmental types who were writing about it. World production of liquid fuels is going to peak within the next ten years give or take, and we are not doing a huge hell of a lot about it. Gravy ain’t wavy.

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