Sunday, January 4, 2009

Risk is Relative

Have you ever heard somebody say, "Well, Einstein said 'it's all relative,' right?"


That's not what Einstein said.

This is a common misconception of laypersons who don't bother to do their homework.

Mr. Einstein helped us to understand that there is no such thing (existent) as "space," or "time".

The way the universe actually works is by a concept called SpaceTime.

Both together at the same time.

There is no such thing as space. There is no such thing as time.

Space and Time are merely elements of SpaceTime.

The Relativity that Mr. Einstein was talking about is limited to the relativity of space to time. Nothing else.

So, no, it is NOT all relative.

This is just one simple example of a LACK OF AWARENESS OF REALITY.

Most people I talk to about SpaceTime lack the awareness that their "belief" about space and time is an incorrect mental picture of reality.

Peak Oil is real. 

But Peak Oil is misunderstood by most people also.

They lack an AWARENESS of Peak Oil. That is what this blog is all about. Raising awareness. So we can work together to find a solution to our energy emergency.

How serious is Peak Oil?

What are the risks?

Well, let's explore the risks of Peak Oil RELATIVE to other serious threats.

I will attempt to put Peak Oil in perspective and raise our awareness by constructing a list of threats. These are realities that pose a serious risk to both human civilization and life on Planet Ocean (Planet Earth is an ignorant term I refuse to use).

I'm pretty well qualified to judge risk based on my lifetime of experience as an extreme sports athlete, an investor and also my experience as an Airline Captain. My ability to rationally evaluate risk might be explained by comparing the difference between flying my hangglider close to a thunderstorm (an acceptable personal risk, given adequate flying skill) and operating a transport category airliner with a whole load of passengers onboard who depend on my judgment for their lives.

Let me put it to you another way.

Answer this question: What is Safety?

Tick, tock, tick tock. Did you instantly spit out your answer?

Most people I ask this question have a very difficult time coming up with anything coherent and organized.

Their egos tell them that they are their own "expert" and they say things like, "I know what safety is. I just KNOW."

This is the mark of a layperson, or as we call them in the world of hanggliding, a "Pear Person" or "Whuffo." This is a person who does not have a clue how to rationally evaluate risk and achieve safety. And, they probably shouldn't be interfacing with dangerous machines like lawnmowers or hanggliders or helicopters.

The answer is: Safety, is the optimal minimization of risk.

Optimal. This is the most important concept. Not all risk can be systematically, operationally or economically eliminated. The goal of safety in any activity with risk is to optimize the minimization of risk.

The basic questions in evaluating the risk associated with a particular event are 1) What is the worst it could get? 2) How likely is the event to occur? Check out this analysis that puts Peak Oil into perspective with other extreme risks that humans face today.

I would argue that the risks of Peak Oil are extreme and humans are definitely not doing enough to optimize the minimization of risks associated with Peak Oil.

Very simply: This means we are NOT SAFE from the risks of Peak Oil.

1) GRB (Gamma Ray Burst). A GRB is an exotic cosmological event that could destroy our entire planet and everything on it. Astronomers and Physicists are just beginning to study this phenomenon but we do know that the risk of a GRB is extreme because of the vast amounts of destructive energy that would be released. It is probably not worth staying awake at night worrying about a GRB event but the risk is there nonetheless. Everybody dies.

2) Asteroid Collision with Planet Ocean. You don't have to be a genius to understand that there is an extreme risk of destruction from an Asteroid. The only question is whether the impact would be a "PK" (planet killer; killing off most of the macroscopic life but leaving at least some microscopic life) or an ELE (Extinction Level Event; driving many species to extinction). Again, this one might not be worth staying up at night, but the risk is extreme and ignoring the possibility of an asteroid impact is just fooling yourself by failing to construct a correct mental picture of reality. Just look up at the moon on any night and you can get a good sense of the reality of an asteroid impact. I've been to the meteor crater in Arizona and picked up meteor fragments and held them in my hand, so you can't tell me the risk is not real. I've been to Russia and seen trees knocked over and looked at meteor fragments there too. An asteroid impact could happen at any time, and if it does, it will likely be severe. The severity varies from a few hundred or few thousand to Everybody dies.

3) Skynet. No, just kidding. Even though the Terminator movies were great, there is a zero likelihood that "machines" are going to take over the world and hunt down the humans. I just throw this one in there to give perspective to those who don't "believe" in Peak Oil. If they are wrong about Peak Oil, which they are, it is about as stupid as letting the machines take over the world. If Skynet were real, it would fit into the list about here.

4) Volcanic Winter. I put this one on the list because we (geologists) know for sure the risk is real and could threaten life on the planet at any time. Tambora stratovolcano erupted in 1815 and caused the "year without a summer" in 1816. This is no joke. There is nothing keeping another similar eruption from causing another year without a summer or a couple of years without a summer due to the volcanic ash. The difference between now and then is that now there are about 6.7 Billion people on the planet that are far more susceptible to the impact from a volcanic winter and the destruction of food production. Hundreds of millions of people could die from a volcanic winter. Maybe a billion.

5) Nuclear Winter. This would be similar to Volcanic Winter but with the added fun of radiation poisoning and large-scale permanent impact to life. I only rate nuclear winter below Volcanic Winter because current politics appear to be stable enough to decrease the likelihood of a full-scale Russia-USA conflict even if India and Pakistan or Israel and Iran decide to light em up. Volcanic winter is just a lot more likely.

6) Peak Oil. This is the first event in the list that we can control to any degree at all. The far side extreme of Peak Oil is that the collapse of oil production could cause a global die off. Some estimates are that the globe can only naturally support about 1.5 Billion people. So there is a risk that in about a 10 or 20 year period about 5 billion people could die off. Others have made suggestions that the globe could support as much as 8 billion people. I consider both scenarios unlikely. The actual consequences of Peak Oil will be somewhere in between. But we could easily see several hundred million people die off. Maybe on the scale of 5 to 8 World War IIs (50m), which would mean about 250 million deaths at a minimum.

Deaths attributable to Peak Oil are hard to measure at this point in time even though they are already occurring. Global famine and poverty are already widespread and even though the best understanding involves accounting for the effects of politics, Peak Oil is already hugely impacting the development of human civilization. China, for example has been hamstrung and could have grown at a much higher rate and so could most of Africa if adequate cheap energy had been available in the last several decades.

Peak Oil exposes the world to the risk of a catastrophic collapse in oil production that would fuel war, famine, poverty, disease and economic collapse. The scale of the number of deaths could easily be in the hundreds of millions of people. That is why it is critical to develop an AWARENESS of the risks associated with Peak Oil.

7) Death of the Ocean. We live on a water planet. Nothing really matters as much as the ocean. The problem is that we may have killed the ocean already. Nobody knows. Nobody can say with any degree of certainty whether we have already caused a critical impact with pollution and overfishing. Dr. Sylvia Earle is trying to help us figure out how bad it is. The ocean contains thousands of interlocking networks of non-linear dynamic systems that may be pushed into permanent collapse by unintended effects and unseen consequences. We are playing with a dangerous toy that we do not understand. The problem is that the vast majority of people live largely unconnected to the ocean in their consciousness. But the impact of humans is already known to be extreme. Not just bad, but catastrophic. There are large "dead zones" all over the ocean and recent evidence shows extreme impact from humans in about 95 to 98% of the ocean. The "death" of the ocean could easily kill off all the humans and make the planet uninhabitable for most macroscopic life. Hundreds of millions to billions of people could die. The big problem is that we need energy to fix our human-generated ocean-killing activities. Peak Oil impacts our ability to fix the ocean.

8) Global Warming. We know from the geologic record that the planet has gone through many large swings in chemical conditions including changes in the amount of carbon dioxide and temperature variations. The first question is whether there is any existent as a "climate." There may not be. Weather is understood to be the natural day to day and hour to hour variations. Climate is understood to be the long term trends. But the problem is that humans live such a short time and have a very brief record of competent analysis to work with. Despite the apparent correlation between man-made "greenhouse gases" and warming of the globe or "climate change," the fact remains that nobody "knows" for sure. In fact, it is not just possible but likely that the "trends" we see on the short term as a "climate" may actually be just periods of stability in an otherwise continuously naturally fluctuating non-linear dynamic system of instability at every point in time. Global Warming is serious because the risk is potentially large. Things like large changes in sea level could cause the displacement of hundreds of millions of people and a huge impact to food production and economic pressures. This is the same situation as playing with the ocean. We don't know what we are doing. But it is apparent that man made activities have the potential to have a huge impact and so they must be carefully considered.

The problem is that Peak Oil trumps global warming. The reason is that we are not going to have enough cheap energy to rebuild vast areas of many countries to change our lifestyles to decrease the impact of humans on climate change. But global warming is a media darling and people are stupid enough to continue to drive SUVs down to Wal-Mart to buy plasma TVs so they can watch programs about drowning polar bears.

So, even if global warming is "true," meaning that man's activities are causing it, Peak Oil means that we won't have enough energy to change the ridiculous machine that we built that is causing all the greenhouse gas emissions.

9) Global Economic Collapse. I actually wrote up this list about 2 years ago when I saw the real estate bubble blowing up around the world. Now that the bubble has popped and  the economic collapse is actually happening. And nobody knows how big and deep it will get. Peak Oil will probably cause an even more extreme Global Economic Crisis that what we are seeing in 2008-2009. Just wait until people figure out that all those companies selling stocks to uninformed investors have not accounted for the future lack of cheap energy. Oil is ridiculously cheap right now and could easily go up to $300 per barrel or higher. When it gets really expensive, the world's miltary organizations will just take it away from private use and save it for oppression and control.

10) Rise of a Dictator. Adolph Hitler? Joseph Stalin? The appearance of some new character that could turbo-charge himself with the world wide web and go global is a scary thought but a real risk.

11) Global Pandemic. The H5N1 virus is constantly mutating and drifting. Avian influenza may mutate and become capable of crossing into human populations. The 1918 event killed about 50 million. Many experts have written that they think a similar event today could kill 100 Million or more. It's a good thing that Larry Brilliant and Google are working on an "early warning system" for us.

12) Bio-Terror Event/ Dirty Bomb. Humans are amazingly destructive. Just look at how good we are getting at killing the ocean. Religious ignorance of all kinds is fueling a whole spectrum of dangerous world-views that could lead to a significant event where hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. There might be a suitcase bomb driving down the freeway next to you today for all we know.

13) 8.5 or 9.0 Metropolitan Earthquake. The big one. We haven't really had an extreme event since the human population got so big and so concentrated. Even though China had a large event in 2008, a much bigger one could easily happen any day. Several hundred thousand to perhaps a million could die.

14) Tsunami. The Indonesia event killed about 230 thousand people a few years ago. We could see a bigger one any day. Maybe a million?

15) Food-Water Wars. These type of events are getting more and more likely. For the most part these will probably remain regional and isolated and small in scale.

16) Magnetic Pole Reversal. Here's a potential disaster you don't think about every day. I'm amazed that Hollywood hasn't come up with a disaster flick based on this concept. The rock record seems to indicate that we are overdue for a pole-reversal event. Nobody really knows what would happen and what the consequences would be for life and technology.

So, there you go. Peak Oil is really serious. Right up there with other big risks. We need to start working together to prevent the collapse of oil production from hurting lots of people.

Ever wonder who the most dangerous person in the world is? The answer is, the one who kills you. This usually means the person who you were not AWARE  would kill you, or you probably would have done something about it.

Peak Oil is the dragon that is sneaking up on us. Hopefully awareness of the risk will grow.

Then maybe we can work on minimizing the risks and achieving a more rational degree of safety from the risks of Peak Oil.

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