Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The (Hairless) Monkey Trap

Our U.K. Correspondent (now first among several) recently recommended a fascinating essay Faustus and the Monkey Trap (March 27, 2007) from a thought-provoking site.

Here is an excerpt which describes The Monkey Trap and relates it to humanity's attempts to find a replacement for petroleum:

"Many centuries ago in southeast Asia, some clever soul figured out how to use the thinking patterns of monkeys to make a highly effective monkey trap. The trap is a gourd with a hole in one end just big enough for a monkey’s hand to fit in, and a stout rope connected to the other end, fastened to a stake in the ground. Into the gourd goes a piece of some local food prized by monkeys, large and solid enough that it can’t be shaken out of the gourd.

Sooner or later, a monkey comes along, scents the food, and puts a hand into the gourd to grab it. The hole is too small to allow the monkey to extract hand and food together, though, and the rope and stake keeps the monkey from hauling it away, so the monkey keeps trying to get the food out in its hand. Instead of dropping the food and scampering toward the safety of the nearest tree, the monkey will frantically keep trying to wrestle the food out of the gourd until the club comes whistling down.

The trap works because monkeys, like the rest of us, tend to become so focused on pursuing immediate goals by familiar means that they lose track of the wider context of priorities that make those goals and means meaningful in the first place. Once the monkey scents the food in the gourd, it defines the problem as how to get the food out, and tries to solve the problem in a familiar way, by maipulating food and gourd.

When the hunter appears, that simply adds a note of urgency, and makes the problem appear to be how to get the food out before the hunter arrives. Phrased in either of these terms, the problem is impossible to solve. Only if the monkey remembers that food is of no value to a dead monkey, and redefines the problem as primarily a matter of getting away from the hunter, will it let go of the food, get its hand out of the trap, and run for the nearest tree.

The same dilemma on a larger scale underlies current efforts to deal with the imminent decline of world oil production by finding something else to pour into our gas tanks: ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen, you name it. Our petroleum-powered vehicles – not just cars, but the trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft that make our current way of life possible – are the food in the monkey’s hand. The problem of peak oil, as many people even in the peak oil community see it, is how to find some other way to keep the fuel tanks topped up. This seems like common sense, but that’s what the monkey thinks about getting the food out of the gourd, too."

Resource Analyst (and frequent contributor) U. Doran provided four excellent links which encapsulate Peak Oil and its many ramifications beyond energy consumption:

Peak Oil: A Detailed and Transparent Analysis

Crying Wolf or Crying Uncle Does our dependence on foreign energy and credit really matter?

HIGH GASOLINE PRICES Part 1: Immediate Causes

HIGH GASOLINE PRICES Part 2: Long-Term Factors

You have probably heard that producing ethanol produces only a fraction more energy than the oil needed to produce, harvest and transport the corn, make the ethanol and then truck it to market. Furthermore, ethanol contains significantly less energy than gasoline, as this excerpt from the above story describes:

"It is a fact that ethanol only contains about 65% of the energy content of gasoline on a volumetric basis. Therefore, to displace the gross energy content of 1 gallon of gasoline requires 1/0.65, or 1.5 gallons of ethanol. What this means is that as ethanol is put into the gasoline pool, demand will go up simply because the pool now contains less energy."

Gasoline has nearly the same energy density as TNT--meaning that substitutes for such a powerful, currently cheap and easily transportable energy are rare/non-existent.

Here are two previous 2007 posts on Peak Oil/energy:

Peak Oil: Denial Won't Fill Your Tank (April 12, 2007)

The Future Shortage of Energy (May 22, 2007)

Various "technological miracles" are constantly being touted as replacements for oil. One cheerleader favorite is Canadian oil shale/tar sands. But the maximum production capacity of the entire field, at the most optimistic, is 4 million barrels a day--less than 20% of the U.S.'s 21-million barrels a day oil habit.

The rest of the world also uses energy--about 84+ million barrels a day. So the oil shale will at best replace less than 5% of the daily global demand for oil. So much for cheerleading "solutions."

Now we hear about switchgrass as the "miracle feedstock" for ethanol. Wonderful, but nobody's figured out how to brew the stuff on an industrial scale. And even if the entire nation's corn crop were turned into ethanol (or replanted in switchgrass), the ethanol produced would replace at best about 10% of the nation's daily gasoline consumption.

But perhaps The Monkey Trap extends to more than Peak Oil.

Isn't our entire financial system based on an ever-increasing flood of debt and borrowing, as a nation, and as consumers?

As our savings rate has plummeted to a negative number, there is no outcry or concern; The Hunter has yet to appear. As consumers have tapped their primary reserve of wealth, their home, to spend lavishly on luxury goods and travel, it seems we are close to extracting the food from the trap and going on our merry borrow-and-spend way.

But alas, the trap is stronger than our fantasy that we can pay back debt by borrowing and spending more. The seed corn (home equity) is gone, and now that our hands are firmly stuck in the trap, The Hunter--in this case, the bond market--is finally approaching its prey.

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