The Coal Question

I've been relaxing in the bath after a good meal and a snooze--as one does--and found myself occupying my time with an economics text. It keeps me off of (I've reviewed 'head shot' on there, about the physics of the JFK murder and have got into quite a neat dialogue with other nutters) and it also provides a use for books, since my beloved kindle is not waterproof.

My watery text was, as far as it goes, a sort of 'whiz bang' summary of economic history and techniques and rather good for that--David Orrell's insistent critique of the way economists expect certainty and balance, Economyths. He sums up economists' collective failings as 'physics envy', which I think a little unfair since he points out how many of the founders of the discipline were amateurs like myself.

Anyhow, I was struck by two things. One was a description of Pascal's triangle of fractal risk and its elaboration as a Sierpinski gasket. This made me see that I may have been a little too dismissive of the Elliott Wave early this past summer. My points about Robert Prechter's analysis of the wave remain, I think, but I'll return to it at another time (this blog being a sort of recursive, solipsistic and somewhat obscure monument to my ego, really).

The second, though, was something which I had not expected. William Stanley Jevons would not have been one of my favourite people. He did spend an inordinate amount of his time (when not going about his business or helping to invent economics) attempting to find ways to prove that the Irish were some sort of neanderthal group who deserved everything we got, after all. Like many before and since, he exaggerated his fantasies of our extinction.

Unsurprisingly, Francis Galton liked him, via George Darwin, apparently, and based a bit of his ideas on correlation on him. They were all very 'Metaphysical Club' in their fascination with numbers, and how they could murder all the Irish and the working class. Anyway, putting Jevons' genocidal tendencies to one side (and why not, better people have said and done worse*) one little gem of his stood out. That was his 1865 'Peak Coal' work. I have used a diagram from it as the illustration to this post.

It's always pleasant in a hot bath (Pareto loved them, apparently) to be reminded of the thin line between one's own credulity and the tendency of things to happen over and over again. Sometimes, what is predicted for one resource or event--say, global warming or peak coal--translates into others, but the failure of the precursor predictions to be true means that the real thing is ignored until it is too late. That's the 'Boy who cried Wolf' syndrome, if you like. People can fall for something that seems convincing but which leaves them looking silly, and then can discount the moment when their former infatuation actually does morph into truth, not wishing to look that silly again. Think me and swine flu, for example.

Sometimes, though, mad predictions do come true, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. The KGB predicted the outcome of the 1976 presidential election on the basis, after all, that the 'bourgeois-urban elite would require the cooption of an agrarian populist so that kulak votes may elect a safe Democrat', and more or less summed up Jimmy Carter and his peanut farm.

Jevons analysed British energy production in 1865 and concluded that, within a hundred years, decline would begin, and that the state would experience a sort of turbulent transition back from dominance. He also attempted to relate agricultural and commodity cycles to sunspots, and filleted the idea of 'renewable' energy.

In a way, Jevons was proved wrong, and Britain actually not only grew very fast at the time of his predicted decline, in the post war boom, but then went and discovered North Sea oil. The standard of living in this country for most of the post-war period was higher than it has ever been. Properly speaking, British decline of the sort Jevons predicted gave no evidence of happening until, well, now. So in an Obi-Wan Kenobish way, Jevons was right, too. This place is screwed. The truth of the timing just depends, as the old Jedi said, on one's point of view.

All quite intriguing. I can only bestow the highest accolade; if Jevons were writing now, he'd be blogging. Orrell's book also contained a little etymological gem; a 'governor' was a tool balanced on top of a productive engine which relied mostly on calculations made by its employers about the weight of its balls to keep a train on track. We've forgotten that meaning now.

I'll never look at the American state elections, or a senior British policeman (they're known as 'guv' to their subordinates here) in the same way again.

*Like, for instance, Martin Heidegger, or for that matter about eighty per cent of the entire German people.