Science Cannot Save Us

 

Many atheists claim that religion is the source of all violence. They are fatally mistaken. Many atheist leaders, including Napoleon and Stalin, have murdered millions. But the full irony of historical forces is far more fascinating. The religious persecution of science kept at bay the tools that allowed despotic leaders to wreak greater and greater havoc. When the church ruled, no atomic bomb would have been possible. It was no proscription of moral horror at murder on such a grand scale, but moral horror at dabbling in God’s creation. Or perhaps fear, on the Church’s part, of losing power. And now that that blockage has ended, nuclear war hangs, a Damocles sword, over all our heads. Perhaps we would have been better off if, when the church officials refused to look through it, Galileo had smashed his telescope. “By God, you’re right,” he could have said. “This thing is dangerous.” Science has created the means for us to destroy ourselves, a feat religion could only dream of. And if we destroy ourselves, how are we better off?

(My upcoming book, Buddha is an Atheist, discusses this topic from a completely different angle in the Wisdom of Knowledge section.)

Among the legacies of science are untold pollution, terrifying weapons, and mind-numbing oceans of trivial distraction. Modern people, at least Westerners, are self-indulgent, weak-spirited, and feel totally entitled to whatever they want. And though our favored discipline can hardly be blamed for the thick cream of television and its attendant consumerist handmaidens, science is still the bed where this child was conceived. If it points moral fingers at religion because some stole the power and used it for ill, then science must answer the same charge itself. Only ten-fold, for the cruelty of man is limited principally by his tools. Now it has almost no limits. Our progress has raped the earth and may soon leave us in frightful state. The grand squeak of empirical knowledge looks powerless to solve the problems it has created. This historical echo repeats itself – the attempt to solve problems by the same methods that created them only makes them worse.[1]

The idea of scientific progress saving us from our rapidly ballooning problems is a dream. This stupefying belief, faith in science, is the whisper in the cultural air. And it is faith, in every worst sense that the new atheists rail against. Peak Oil is the obvious and well-evidenced theory that there will be a point of maximum daily production of oil. (The statement is definitive since the supply is finite.) Unfortunately, the evidence is that Peak Oil is happening now. We have begun the decline.

There is surprising resistance to this notion. Most people, however, if they accept Peak Oil, have a naïve faith that science and great human creativity will save us with alternative sources. They are wrong. The full arguments are beyond the scope of this post, but two points will allow a beginning place for further research.[2] All alternative technologies have a very low (2:1 or worse) energy return on energy invested (EROI). Oil, forty years ago, had an EROI of around 100 to 1, meaning it took 1 barrel of oil to get 100 barrels out of the ground. Now it is about 15 to 1 because all the easy oil is gone. The ratio can only decline with deep ocean oil (2 to 1), heavy oil (same) and tar sands (3 to 2). Shale oil is most likely below 1. It’s a busted flush.

It is debatable if solar and even wind have EROI’s of 1. If EROI is below 1, then it costs more energy to make the technology than it can return in its lifetime. At this level, it is not a source of energy, but a net energy loss. And these techs are built, transported and installed with a single source: oil. Even with EROI above 1, it costs so much to get the energy that it cannot possibly replace oil. Oil also is safe and convenient to transport, easy to change into different forms, and contains massive energy per unit of volume. Oil cannot be replaced.

Yet people’s faith in science is such that they point to their iPhone gadgetry and yammer about how technology will carry us through. These gadgets are not energy sources. They are energy consumers. It is a crucial and mostly overlooked point. Technology has not found any new energy sources, except severely troubled nuclear,[3] for 2500 years.[4] Will we find a replacement source in the next five, before the crisis emerges full-blown? And if we find it, can we re-work the national and world infrastructure to utilize it in that time-frame?

When people claim that technology will save us, ask them how. The notion that someone will have a flash of genius and rescue us is both empty and foolish. As the old saying goes, ‘wish in one hand and shit in the other, then see which weighs more.’ These are the consequences of such misplaced faith – it will cost us unimaginably. This leads to the second point: hundreds of millions, possibly billions, will die. Starvation will be the main culprit.

Fossil fuels are used in every aspect of our globalist diet. Oil powers all farm equipment and transport trucks. Pesticides are made from oil, and pesticide use has increased ten-fold in the past twenty years. At that rate, they barely keep insects at bay. Synthetic fertilizers are made from natural gas. Electricity to cook our food comes primarily from coal[5] or natural gas. Our current food system relies on 10 calories of fossil fuel energy, mostly oil, to produce 1 calorie of food energy.[i] It is the poster child of non-sustainability. For those unused to abstract terminology: It is doomed to collapse. The only question is how long.

This frightening scenario is too much for most people. Instead they choose to ignore it and rely on the miracle of science to solve the world’s problems. Science is not up to the task. It can solve neither human ignorance nor political corruption. It cannot eradicate greed. It cannot create a replacement energy supply where none exists. The take-away message is that it is time to scale down energy consumption and stop wishful thinking. But our entire technology worshipping way of life won’t allow this. We have been programmed to infallible faith in science. We aren’t taking the needed steps to prepare. This unwarranted trust will cause more suffering than religion ever has.

We have been deceived and the promises are not met. Science is found wanting. In the most urgent hour of human need, it can only fail. It cannot end war. It cannot replace dwindling resources. It cannot provide meaning to the billions wandering in the fog of materialistic delusion. It cannot indefinitely feed a continually growing population. It cannot prevent pandemics.[6] For all its accomplishments, it is like the American government – bankrupt. The people are only beginning to realize. Hopefully, the cultural shift will happen soon and rapidly. The people who survive long-term will be the ones who carve out a locally sufficient lifestyle and quit relying on the global system.


[1] The bank bailouts are an interesting case in point. How will the world solve a debt crisis by vastly inflating the debt?

[2] The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg is an excellent beginning, but there are other books. The Oil Drum is a good website for Peak Oil.

[3] Nuclear is not an option. It cannot run cars, uranium is running out, and we need 1 power plant built every week for 50 years to replace our current oil consumption. <Verify the numbers>. Also, it takes up to ten years to regain the energy input for a nuclear power plant.

[4] Oil was discovered by the Assyrians in ground seeps and used for lighting.

[5] The vaunted 250 years of coal is delusional. The good coal (anthracite – high energy content) and the rich veins near the surface are gone. The remaining bituminous coal is mediocre (a decade or so) to sub-bituminous (poor) to barely adequate (lignite). If we could mine all the coal, 250 years is potential, but the EROI on most of this (estimated) coal supply is well below 1. And without oil, how do we mine such hard to get coal? In spite of these liabilities, coal is the best bet for kicking the can down the road.

[6] Case in point – overuse of antibiotics has created resistant strains of disease. TB is back in a more virulent form.


[i] Eating Fossil Fuels, author?

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