Keynote or down-key-bluster?

September 13, 2007

I am in Houston on a flying visit to lead two Knowledge Management discussions at the Oil & Gas exchange. Yesterday I settled down to listen to the opening keynote, one Michael Economides. An engineer by background but now on the pundit circuit since publishing The Colour of Oil. I didn’t expect to agree with everything he said, but I did expect to be informed and stimulated. Regrettably neither happened, the speech did not live up to the writing style. What we got was a series of polemical statements often not completed, or with the jokes mistimed, interspersed with some graphs that could have proved anything. Maybe he was still recovering from an engagement the previous evening, but we got a bluster, not a keynote.

For those at my session yesterday the podcast is up here, along with the contents of the one slide I used. For other readers the same material is covered at more length in the KM Australia Podcasts here and here. Incidentally for some reason the iPod sometimes seems to just stop recording so if anyone knows why please pass on the knowledge

Back to Economides who really had two targets in his sights. One was the issue of the Oil Peak (has it happened yet) and the other was Global Warming. He was also advocating a proposition that GDP is directly linked to energy consumption and that in consequence any attempt to reduce energy consumption would reduce GDP and was therefore wrong. His final statement was that there is no alternative to Hydro-Carbons in the foreseeable future. If he right in that statement then there is little hope for my children, let alone any grand children that I might enjoy: in the future please dear offspring if you are reading this, not now or for several years.

Now we had a whole mixture of incoherent arguments around this. He separated the issue of a rise in the average temperature, from the issue of CO2 being a causal factor. The first he admitted, on the second he challenged anyone to show any refereed paper which proved that there was a direct causal link between increases in CO2 and global temperature rise. There were he said lots of correlations, but not proof of causality. Now at one level one can buy this. Correlation is often confused with causality, and a correlation while it may be necessary, is not sufficient to establish causality. However if I can add a coherent science based explanation of why the correlation might be significant, then there is reason to act. Especially as the consequences are potentially catastrophic. It was a bad example of a former engineer with a political agenda trespassing on the fields of science and logic for which he was ill qualified.

It was also a hypocritical argument. The GDP-Energy consumption graph was itself a correlation from which he argued to causality. We had the same thing on politics, everything he argued was objective, anyone who was against him was politically motivated. Its a long time since I saw someone arguing (albeit incoherently and in incomplete sentences) for unfettered red in tooth and claw market capitalism. Most people I know at a senior level in the oil and other extractive industries have a more mature and socially responsible attitude to issues of energy. Whether we have reached the oil peak or not, everyone agrees we are going to meet it soon. In consequence we have to start thinking about investment and political strategies that are both international, and which look at total social cost over longer time frames than seems possible in the current political climate.

Linking energy consumption to GDP is pre-knowledge economy talk, although the energy consumption of computing is something we also have to tackle in that respect! Interestingly his graph showed that the European nations were improving efficiency in oil consumption while sustaining GDP, but that was dismissed.

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