The Stone Age Didn’t End due to a Shortage of Stones

Nov 25, 2015 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Stone Age didn’t end due to a shortage of stones. We moved on. The age of fossil fuels will not end through running out of oil, coal or gas. We will move on. History is littered with failed experiments which flourished for a while but failed to adapt. Adaptation is key to life but the factor working against adaptation is incumbency. The more secure, committed and invested a species is to its niche, the more established and dominant it is, paradoxically, the more vulnerable it is to change.

The past holds us in thrall. What was yesterday colours our perception of tomorrow. We are fully invested in the constructs of the past, unwilling to abandon the castle despite the tide of change eroding its foundations. Like all endangered species extinct or slowly dying we indulge in denial or sandbagging.

Change is a threat but also an opportunity. Sometimes change comes abruptly like the overnight destruction of the hitherto solid winter ice highway on the river Neva in St Petersburg. Sometimes change is imperceptible – the steady increase in CO2 in our atmosphere. Investment in the past saw Kodak miss the digital camera revolution. Digital was a novelty adjunct to their core business of film. Our vision may be blurred by our past but we are not condemned to stay there. We are blessed to be standing on the shoulders of giants. The lessons of the past will give us the wisdom to navigate the future.

The information revolution of the past 15 years has introduced us to the experience of exponentiality for the first time in human history. Constant, rapidly expanding, chaotic change. Human evolution over ten thousand generations was predicated on no or slow, steady change and this slow evolution has coloured our thought and decision processes. Exponentiality is a new and alien concept that undermines our evolutionary defences. We resist and deny. But physics cannot be hectored. Alien a concept as it is, if a technology or organism enjoys unhindered exponential growth it reaches the half-way point in its growth when it achieves a 1% penetration. This is a big ask of course as few growth trajectories are frictionless and unconstrained, with competitors vying for common resources hampering stratospheric aspirations.

Competition and natural selection have long held such ambition in check but when we introduce breakthrough advances that are overwhelmingly superior with no viable competitor, all defences melt away and one species completely annihilates and replaces the other. Last century, for example, it took 13 years for the car to completely replace the horse. It took 8 years for the word processor to completely replace the typewriter. It took 5 years for digital to completely replace film. No peaceful coexistence. Complete replacement. Some complementary species are tolerated – i.e. mobile and landline telephony – but more common is the complete replacement of one by the other – vhs, walkman, service station attendants all gone.

With an overwhelmingly superior or cheaper technology there are few internal hindrances to its growth. The hindrances that do occur will be external or artificial. Restraints of resources. The threat to vested interests. Resistance to change may influence it. Reasons will be found, logic will be twisted, long bows will be drawn. But if it is greatly superior, market forces (and logic) will prevail. Resources will be allocated, designs will be optimised, objections will be ignored. This is the situation today with renewable energy vs fossil fuels. An exponential trajectory from a minuscule base sees renewables at the tipping point where they are now cheaper than fossil fuels. Moore’s Law and economies of scale have brought solar and wind to a point where, unsubsidised, they are cheaper thanheavily subsidised entrenched fossil fuels, and getting cheaper each passing day. It took 20 years for renewables to achieve a 1% penetration. They are now at 4% and will continue to accelerate for the next 25 years until they dominate market share. There will be a small amount of subsidised legacy fossil fuel energy that will dwindle to nothing by 2050.

This will be unstoppable. No amount of bluster and obfuscation can now prevent the replacement of the majority of fossil fuels by renewables. Objections will be raised. Intermittency, the need for storage. The sunk investments, the stranded assets will be invoked but to no avail. Trillions of dollars have been invested and continue to be foolishly invested in some dying industries – coal mines, power stations, car industry, oil and gas need to develop cleaner fuels for clean energy. They will fight but the writing is on the wall. Volkswagen’s diesel fraud clearly demonstrates the limits to incremental improvement of a dead-end technology. The steady reduction of battery prices each year will see a tipping point by 2020 where long range battery electric cars are cheaper than internal combustion engine cars, losing an exponential uptake of an inherently superior (and cheaper) alternative that will destroy and completely replace over time the existing vehicle industry. Game over for oil. Elon Musk knows this. Carlos Ghosn knows this.

Surely though, this change will take decades? The investment required to replace the energy industry is vast. The need for storage alone will take 20-30 years will it not? Indeed, this is the perspective of respected government advisers and organisations such as the world energy peak body, the IEA. They breathe a sigh of relief. It’s a lot harder than expected.

Or is this just confirmation bias? A closer inspection reveals that the International Energy Agency in its World Energy Outlook has been consistently wrong. Every projection for renewable energy growth over the past 8 years has shown arithmetic growth where actual growth is logarithmic, exponential. Governments relying on their advice are being left behind in the wake of renewables’ stratospheric growth.

Fortunately the market doesn’t listen. Political leaders murmur soothing blandishments while lesser jurisdictions act, jumping to a safer ship. While Ford and Holden are shutting up shop, Tesla and Nissan are embracing the future with autonomous, driverless electric cars. Finland, the ACT and Ikea are not waiting for others to go 100% all-in. Smart money shifts to emerging technology. Former AAA+ investment grade coal fired power stations are trashed selling for less than a cent in $1 (Vales Point, Hazelwood). Victorian company BrighSun builds electric buses with 1000km+ range for interstate tourism. Uber gains licence to operate legally in NSW and eyes 500,000 driverless electric cars. Tesla CEO builds world’s largest factory to decimate the price of lithium batteries and moots expansion into China and Germany with plans of hundredfold expansion. The power of exponentiality. Past certainties trashed by exploding agents of change.

Our reptilian brain evolved over the past 100 million years while the overarching cerebral cortex has emerged in the last 100,000. Condense this to a single day and we see exponentiality in action. A trillion-fold expansion in the last 59 seconds of the day with a further trillion-fold expansion in the next second. A logarithmic scale could not graph this.

The past is a comforting but faithless mistress. We cling to her seeking reassurance but she turns into the future and is unforgiving of ignorance.

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