The Race of Doom

There is a profile of the world’s smartest and richest Malthusian in this Sunday’s NYT magazine that carries a headline he surely finds galling:

Can Jeremy Grantham Profit from Ecological Mayhem?

If you know anything about Grantham, then you know he wants to save the environment and civilization from ecological mayhem. As I wrote in this post at Climate Central, after his quarterly newsletter was published in May,

Grantham’s portrayal of a world that will soon be forced to deal with the trifecta of resource scarcity, climate change and population growth, is not unlike the scenarios sketched out by the likes of the environmental thinker Lester Brown and geographer Jared Diamond.

The NYT profile of him reads like a story of a weary prophet who is disappointed but not surprised that his warnings aren’t being heeded. And while Grantham is resigned to the future ecological mayhem that he believes society will endure, he is not giving up hope that he can help head it off.

Personally, I find Grantham to be a compelling voice on peak oil and climate and environmental concerns (which should not be taken to mean I’m in full agreement with him).  He also grasps some of the real-world obstacles to political action. For example, here he is on why the U.S. Congressional climate bill got torpedoed:

Grantham put his own influence and money behind the climate-change bill passed by the House in 2009. “But even $100 million wouldn’t have gotten it through the Senate,” he said. “The recession more or less ruled it out. It pushed anything having to do with the environment down 10 points, across the board. Unemployment and interest in environmental issues move inversely.”

The next passage reveals that Grantham, unlike some purists in the climate concerned community, is open to a different game plan:

Having missed a once-in-a-generation legislative opportunity to address climate change, American environmentalists are looking for new strategies. Grantham believes that the best approach may be to recast global warming, which depresses crop yields and worsens soil erosion, as a factor contributing to resource depletion. “People are naturally much more responsive to finite resources than they are to climate change,” he said. “Global warming is bad news. Finite resources is investment advice.”

This jibes with the findings of a new study, whose lead author, Matthew Nisbet, summarized here. He wrote that

a broad cross section of Americans may be ready to engage in dialogue about ways to manage the risks associated with peak petroleum.

For a quick primer on the risks associated with peak oil, let’s go to Dry Dipstick:

Overall the long-term prognosis is grim for the future of “cheap” oil, and the world must expect to get along without what has been our critical energy source in expanding the world’s economy for more than half a century. The sooner the world’s governments prepare for that eventuality and a transition to alternative energy sources the better, but the signs have hardly been encouraging up to now, with both the oil industry and its client nation-states keeping their fingers crossed and continuing “business as usual.”

As I have often pointed out on this blog, there is a doomsday strain to much of the current peak oil/climate change commentary. One of the more recent examples is this essay by former NYT correspondent Chris Hedges. It’s largely a jeremiad against corporate globalism, which in Hedges’ view, is driving humanity over a cliff:

The deadly convergence of environmental and economic catastrophe is not coincidental. Corporations turn everything, from human beings to the natural world, into commodities they ruthlessly exploit until exhaustion or death. The race of doom is now between environmental collapse and global economic collapse. Which will get us first? Or will they get us at the same time?

Grantham, for his part, isn’t predicting the downfall of capitalism. But in the NYT piece, he seems equally certain that the future will be ugly:

I have no doubt we’re going to have a bad hundred years. We have the resources to gracefully handle the transition, but we won’t. We apparently can’t.

I hope we prove him wrong. I’m sure he does too.

16 Responses to “The Race of Doom”

  1. LCarey says:

    It will be very interesting to observe how the usual cast of “faux skeptics” will have to twist themselves into pretzels arguing that an uber capitalist like Grantham, who has made a fortune through founding and running a money management firm with billions under management is somehow a closet socialist, bent on establishing a UN one world order.   I have been arguing for some time (based in part on Grantham’s writings) that some of the biggest first casualties of resource depletion and climate disruption will be our portfolios and 401(k)s ““ your retirement is likely a much more endangered species than the polar bears.

  2. Keith Kloor says:


    I can see your argument based on resource depletion, but not so much on climate disruption.

    Grantham compellingly marshals the evidence for resource depletion, too.

  3. Matt B says:

    Grantham believes that the best approach may be to recast global warming, which depresses crop yields and worsens soil erosion, as a factor contributing to resource depletion. 

    Are low crop yields & soil erosion now facts?


    1. Just because someone is rich doesn’t make them prescient or reliable – Ross Perot made tons of cash and he was crazy as a loon (I still voted for him though….twice)

    2. My 401k & retirement plans are already in deep Barney & I have plenty of other llikely suspects to prosecute before I bring charges against climate change……..

  4. Jarmo says:

    Resources are finite, yes. However, North America is loaded with fossil fuels. I think the challenge will be to leave them underground:

    Global technically-recoverable oil shale reserves have recently been estimated at about 2.8″“3.3 trillion barrels of shale oil, with the largest reserves in the United States, which is thought to have 1.5″“2.6 trillion barrels

     In its Annual Energy Outlook for 2011, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) more than doubled its estimate of technically recoverable shale gas reserves in the US, to 827 Tcf from 353 Tcf
     Oil sands in Canada: at least 1.7 trillion barrels (270×109 m3) in the Canadian Athabasca Oil Sands (assuming a 10% recovery).

    The most recent figures available from the EIA, show that America’s estimated recoverable reserves of coal:
    Stand at 275 billion tons, an amount that is greater than any other nation in the world. 
    Are capable of meeting domestic demand for more than 250 years at current rates of consumption.

  5. Sashka says:

    Could you define “climate disruption”, Keith?

  6. Sashka says:

    @ LCarey

    If you know what’s coming it’s easy to get prepared. Invest your 401K plan into soon-to-be depleted natural resources and you’ll make it like a bandit.

  7. harrywr2 says:

    <i>EIA – 275 billion tons of coal</i>
    Just today in the Wall Street Journal…a story about how extraction costs are making Appalachian coal ‘uncompetitive’. The extraction costs for Alpha coal rose 17% in the last 12 months.
    If you live on the Eastern Seaboard of the US your local ‘cheap coal’ is gone and you probably aren’t going to like the price Warren Buffet is going to charge you to haul cheap Wyoming Coal on his railroad  to your coal fired power plants.

  8. Barry Woods says:

    I prefer Rational Optimism over Dark Optimism.
    JUst because ghe is rich does not mean he is right, analogy is how many Nobel prize winners have made themselves look silly when they pontificate outside of their own field.

    Whatever he says the Chinese, Indians and the devloping world are going to completely ignore him. As for his judgement, he employs Bob Ward

  9. Tom Fuller says:

    Lester Brown has been playing the Paul Ehrlich song for 30 years. OTOH,

    “Since 1961, crop yield (Mt/ha) has increased consistently at average annual growth rates of w1.5%.”

    We keep hearing that global warming is doing this and that, but it keeps not doing this or that.

    Grantham may be right. I think there will be negative effects due to global warming. But I think increasing the spread and efficiency of GMOs will counteract those effects. 

  10. Barry Woods says:

    Matt Ridley on Grantham’s NYT piece..

  11. Bill says:

     Grantham has long been an investment Doctor Doom anyway. I think he sold most of the shares in his portfolios in about ’93 – then the market doubled. As a result Grantham seems to have been “retired” from actual fund management duties in about 1995.

     Since then he has travelled the world, (First Class of course), raving about the collapse of the share market, property market, bond markets and currencies – to any investment conference he gets invited to.

     Since he has gotten even older and grimmer, its hardly surprising he has diversified into the “doom is nigh” schtick as well.

  12. Jarmo says:


    If I read the link correctly, WSJ also cites cheaper natural gas and environmental regulation as reasons why coal is not competitive and that price of coal actually went down:

     Utilities drew down coal stockpiles but also favored lower priced and cleaner natural gas in some regions, sending prices of thermal coal used by utilities lower in the East. Meanwhile, small coal-fired power plants along rivers in Ohio and elsewhere are slated to close, due to tougher emission standards.

    My point is not to argue prices. My point is that with the advances in extraction technology with shale gas, tight oil and shale oil, the US has another 100 years supply of natural gas and oil and 250 years supply of coal at its disposal in North America alone.


  13. […] Keith Kloor, a journalist and environment blogger, also has weighed in on Grantham, an investment guru (and very rich man) who claims “this time is [really] different” in assessing trends in natural resources as they affect markets and human welfare. Kloor calls him “the world’s smartest and richest Malthusian.” […]

  14. Ed Forbes says:

    Humm..”peak oil” ?

    LOL… it when you can see articiles talking about the need to stop oil sands and fracking along with “peak oil” in the same breath.

    And all of it 100 yrs (or more) in the future.

  15. Richard says:

    Gernerally people who have gotten rich following the philosophy “everyone for himself” can’t understand that this time is different.  Grantham is the exception.  He is thoughtful.  He realizes that this problem is different.  We are all in this together. We have to act together. 

  16. MarkB says:

    “There is a profile of the world’s smartest and richest Malthusian in this Sunday’s NYT magazine…”

    Richest, maybe. But I have extreme difficulty associating the words smart and Malthusian. Is there any single idea in modern Western thought that has been disproved so thoroughly so often? Seriously now. You might compare Malthusianism with Freudianism, but Freud was never empirical in any sense. From Malthus core idea, empirical claims have been made by the thousands – literally – and all have failed, right up to this day. So please, spare us the ‘smart’ business. Willfully perverse, yes, smart? Laughable.

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