Correspondence with the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American

 

rom: "John Rennie" <jrennie@sciam.com>

To: <igoklany@erols.com>

Sent: Monday, January 28, 2002 4:40 PM

Subject: from Scientific American

 

 

Dear Mssrs. Goklany, Taylor, and Adler:

 

Concerning your letter to the editors, in which you assert:  "...[the]

criticism, namely, that no scholar if any takes seriously the notion that

the world is running out of oil. Diligent readers of Scientific American

know otherwise."

 

Really, sirs. Either you are less diligent readers than you pretend or you

are pulling my leg. The Colin Campbell article and others in Scientific

American do _not_ state that the world is running out of oil. They say that

the world is running out of _cheap_ oil, oil that can be obtained at any

prices resembling those we see today. Campbell's article is quite emphatic

in making this point, which is why its title is "The End of Cheap Oil," not

"The End of Oil, Period."

 

The distinction is important because, as should be obvious, there can be

oceans of oil still inside the planet but if it costs too much to drain

them, there will be an effective shortage of oil. If other energy sources

are not sufficiently developed to take up the slack affordably (and in an

imperfect world, market conditions alone can't guarantee that they will be),

then the world can still face an energy crisis without running out of

energy.

 

This is the distinction that the Scientific American articles made, that

explains why no one serious thinks the issue rests on the world actually

running out of energy, and that Lomborg confuses to his discredit.

 

Sincerely,

 

John Rennie

--

John Rennie, editor in chief

Scientific American

415 Madison Ave.

New York, NY 10017

tel: 212-451-8813

fax: 212-755-1976

jrennie@sciam.com

 

 

 

 

From: Indur Goklany [igoklany@erols.com]

Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2002 6:30 PM

To: John Rennie

Cc: Jonathan H. Adler; Jerry Taylor

Subject: Re: from Scientific American

 

Mr. Rennie --

 

This is really a distinction without a difference, as a perusal of the

scarcity literature should make clear. The debate over whether we will "run

out" of oil is not about whether oil will physically disappear, but rather

about whether it will become too scarce to obtain at a reasonable price.

Contrary to the impression created by the Holdren piece, this claim -- that

we will run out of cheap oil -- is the focus of Lomborg's discussion of oil,

as is clear from his opening paragraph in which he quotes an environmental

scenario of "sticker shock at the gas pumps" and summarizes his argument as

follows "There are good reasons to believe that we will not have dramatic

price increases, and that we will actualyl be able to handle our future

energy needs" (p. 119). That affordable oil -- not physical exhaustion of

supply -- is his focus is clear throughout the discussion: "The question is

not whether we leave a society for the coming generations with more or less

oil, but whether we leave a society in which energy can be produced cheaply

or expensively" (p. 120); "How should scarcity be measured? Even if we were

to run out of oil, this would not mean that oil was unavailable, only that

it would be very, very expensive. If we want to examine whether oil is

getting more and more scarce we have to look at whether oil is getting more

and more expensive" (p.122).

 

In conclusion, we were not "pulling your leg."  Perhaps we should have

inserted the adjective "cheap" in front of the word oil, but anyone familiar

with the relevant literature (or of Lomborg's book) would know that this is

the issue.  We stand by our letter, and hope that you see fit to publish it.

 

 

 

 

From: John Rennie [mailto:jrennie@sciam.com]

Sent: Wednesday, January 30, 2002 11:25 AM

To: Indur Goklany

Cc: Jonathan H. Adler; Jerry Taylor

Subject: Re: from Scientific American

 

 

Mr. Goklany,

 

I'm afraid that your letter doesn't do anything except further illustrate

the misleading tactics that Lomborg uses in his approach to energy. In

effect, he sets up a straw man by saying that environmentalists claim we are

running out of energy, whereas a study of the facts shows that we will never

run out of energy. Then he says that the real issue is energy price, as

though this were a novel point and not, in fact, precisely what the serious

environmentalist scientists involved in this subject have been saying all

along. In short, Lomborg brings the discussion back to price, but he shoots

down actual scarcity as a way of (falsely) discrediting the

environmentalists.

 

Your comment, moreover, that this is "really a distinction without a

difference" mystifies me, because you then repeated precisely the

distinction that I (and Mr. Holdren) made as though you were making a point.

If it doesn't make a difference, why is Lomborg bringing it up? And if it is

his point, why doesn't he acknowledge, as Holdren does, that no serious

scientist believes the issue is really about literally running out of

energy?

 

--

John Rennie, editor in chief

Scientific American

415 Madison Ave.

New York, NY 10017

tel: 212-451-8813

fax: 212-755-1976

jrennie@sciam.com

 

 

 

From: Jerry Taylor [jtaylor@cato.org]

Sent: Wednesday, January 30, 2002 12:24 PM

To: John Rennie

Cc: Jonathan H. Adler; Indur Goklany

Subject: RE: from Scientific American

 

Mr. Rennie:

 

The straw man is not in the Lomborg book, but in the Holdren review

published in your journal.  Lomborg makes clear that the argument he is

attacking is the argument that we will see dramatic increases in energy

prices due to increasing scarcity.  He notes this in the  first paragraph of

his chapter, and throughout, as we noted before.  If in doubt, please read

that chapter again; it's really not all that long.  The argument over

whether society is "running out of oil" is an argument, as you say, about

whether it will become so scarce as to drive up the price.  Going into high

dungeon about the occasional lack of the adjective "cheap" in the front of

the noun "oil" is thus an example of studied obtuseness at best and blatant

disingenuousness at worst.

 

Moreover, arguing that economically profitable energy is becoming more

plentiful, not more scarce, does not falsely discredit anyone.  It adds an

important bit of evidence about economic scarcity trends.  To contend that

long-term trends in resource prices or profitably recoverable resource

stocks is of minimal relevance to the question of future resource

availability (and hence, price) is a curious position for an editor at

Scientific American to take.

 

Mr. Holdren, on the other hand, begins his piece by juxtaposing the debate

as one over running  out of oil versus the environment's capacity to

withstand the ecological impacts of energy use.   He claims the latter --

and not increasing prices due to scarcity -- is the "mainstream

environmental position."  Moreover, Holdren notes that among Lomborg's

targets are "professional analysts . . . who have argued not that the world

is running out of energy altogether but only that it might be running out of

cheap oil."  Exactly!  That is the position that Lomborg is attacking -- and

it is the position that Scientific American has published.  Hence our

letter.

 

--Jerry Taylor