By Allan Stromfeldt Chris­tensen: Book Review: The Oracle of Oil

Here is a very nice history on peak oil and a review of a new biography on its first researcher, M. King Hubbert.

http://fromfilmerstofarmers.com/blog/2016/june/book-review-the-oracle-of-oil/

Living in highly technological civilizations that generally place the greatest importance and value upon the material gadgetry and inventiveness of our societies, it should come as little surprise that the luminaries and household names that we can readily conjure and associate with are those related to the technological aspects of our lives. For example, when one mentions the telephone, the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, or nuclear bombs, it’s likely that many a grade-schooler can rhyme off the names Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and, perhaps, Albert Einstein.

But segue into more ecological matters and the fathers and mothers of these vocations are certainly not household names the way the aforementioned are. For what comes to mind when we think of organic farming, climate change, the environmental movement, or limits to growth? For most of those who flick light switches on and off as much as they eat food and depend on stable planetary ecological balances, the answers are probably little more than a shrug. While children can quite easily conjure up the aforementioned names, you’d be hard pressed to find even an adult who could easily slip off of their tongues the names Sir Albert Howard, Svante Arrhenius, Rachel Carson, and the team of Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers.

But while the topics of organic farming, climate change, and the environmental movement can certainly elicit recognition in the average citizen, the reality of peak oil quite often does not, with even less of a recognition expected in reference to the person that initially brought it to our attention. That largely unknown individual would be M. King Hubbert, the subject of Mason Inman’s timely new biography, The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist’s Quest for a Sustainable Future.

As Inman describes it, after having spent his early formative years on a farm in the Hill Country of Central Texas, and gone through two years of community college, a young Hubbert ended up making his way through various hardscrabble jobs on his way to the University of Chicago. It was there that the mathematically inclined Hubbert got exposed to a variety of disciplines that would aid him in his future endeavours, those ranging from geology to physics to math.

It was while still an undergrad that the first inklings of Hubbert’s future interest can be seen, that moment when he first glimpsed a chart depicting the exponential growth of coal extraction rates. After a following lecture on petroleum extraction, Hubbert apparently couldn’t help but muse to himself, “How long will it last?” For now, as he put it, it was “Difficult to estimate reserves.”

By no means though was Hubbert afflicted with a one-track kind of mind, for as Inman astutely weaves within his story, Hubbert, and at only 26-years-of-age, accepted a job offer to teach geophysics at Columbia University in New York City, the place where he became an original member of what would become the second focus of his life – the nascent movement soon to be known as Technocracy. In short, Technocracy was a not-quite totalitarian system whereby government-owned industries were envisioned as being managed by scientists, engineers and technicians. In fact, all of North America, even all the way down to Venezuela (because it had oil?) would be under the “continental control” of a united government, known as a “Technate.” Technocracy also disdained “the price system” in favour of “energy certificates,” a highly relevant notion that Inman fortunately repeatedly returns to.

In the meantime, Hubbert was all the while dissatisfied with the supposedly common sense notion that the extraction of a given mineral increases exponentially until one day, poof!, there’s nothing left. As he understood it, extraction and depletion rates could be related to the so-called S-curve that can be seen in an isolated pair of breeding fruit flies: their population soars and eventually tapers off at a plateau (or a flattened peak). And as Hubbert was in the minority with his belief that there were limits to growth, he similarly saw various facets of industrial society as fitting on this S-curve.

Being one of the leading proponents of Technocracy and an ardent writer on its workings, it was in Technocracy publications that Hubbert dabbled in writing about peaks and declines of resources. Come 1938, Hubbert came up with his first, but somewhat unsubstantiated (and rather off), estimate of the year that US oil extraction rates would peak: 1950. But having moved from academia to the government in the early 40s, it wasn’t until he then took a job at the US branch of Royal Dutch Shell in 1943 (eventually becoming the top geologist in a new lab it created) that Hubbert would have the resources and access to information that would allow him to formulate a more detailed analysis which led to his ground-breaking predictions.

For it was on March 8th, 1956, that Hubbert gave his talk “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” his revelatory paper that laid out his thoroughly analysed prediction that US oil extraction rates would peak sometime between 1965 and 1970 (to go along with a global peak in 2000). I won’t spoil things with a recitation of the rather humorous tensions, but I will point out that Hubbert was in fact correct, and that US oil extraction rates peaked in 1970. Furthermore, while much derision of Hubbert’s findings resulted both before and after 1970 (to go along with a smattering of praise), what may come as surprising to those thoroughly familiar with peak oil but too young to have been around back then (such as I, who was busy being born while President Jimmy Carter was wearing cardigans and having solar panels placed on the White House) is the amount of media attention given to estimates of US oil supplies, including both before and after Hubbert’s famous paper.

For while peak oil is nowadays generally dismissed – and more commonly ignored – by the mainstream media in lieu of financial abracadabra and/or dreams of a 100% replacement of fossil fuel energy with renewable (“renewable”) energy, the amount of serious talk that domestic US oil supplies garnered in the mid to late-mid 20th century is comparatively astounding. Inman’s surprising historical account relays the fact that the topic made the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post on more than one occasion, while the New York Times even visited Hubbert at his home to interview him! And even more absurd is Inman’s account of the US administration’s – all the way up to President Jimmy Carter’s – interest in Hubbert’s work, President Carter even making a quasi-reference to Hubbert’s work in one of his talks.

The question(s) that these shocking revelations (shocking to me at least) that Inman conveys is, What happened? Why were oil supplies and extraction rates such a big issue a few decades ago, when today the talk, if anything, is all about energy prices?

As Inman points out, one of the ordeals that began to drown out talk of oil extraction rates was the Watergate scandal of 1973. Following that, the “doom and gloom” of President Jimmy Carter (Carter’s sources called for worldwide oil extraction rates to peak in the mid-1980s [!?], while Hubbert’s calculations saw 2000 as the peak year) was no match for the sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, resulting in a new President and the removal of the White House’s interloping solar panels.

Jump ahead a few decades, and from what I can tell, not only does it seem that this Reagan-esque sunny optimism continues to reign supreme, but that it has imbued itself into the thinking of many progressives and environmentalists today, through the optimistic attitude of the “clean and green” notion that “renewables” can provide a 100% substitution for fossil fuels. As far as I can see it, it is this techno-optimist attitude of technology-as-saviour, to go along with another round of obeisance to financialization as itinerant saviour, that has convinced many people that energy supplies, and thus peak oil, need not be an issue (anymore, supposing that they ever really were).

But as Inman’s account also explains, Hubbert wasn’t quite averse to the techno-optimist way of thinking either. Although he did eventually do away with his staunch support for nuclear power, Hubbert ended up trading a reliance on nuclear power for a rather oversized belief in solar power. That is, Hubbert envisioned deserts covered in solar panels that would generate electricity of which could be converted into methanol or to generate hydrogen, and that such ventures could power high-energy societies (New York City!) for thousands of years. It was thus Hubbert’s belief that

“with our technology and with adequate supplies of energy, we ought to have a lot of leisure. And the proper use of this leisure can bring us an intellectual renaissance.”

This attitude gels with the stated Technocratic “embrace [of] the abundance created by machines,” which for me is hard to equate with the notion that peak oil and diminishing energy supplies in general imply less energy to power those machines, unless you believe in the sunny optimism of solar-panel-covered-deserts (to go along with other “renewables”) that can match the energetic output of fossil fuels (which the low EROEI levels of, say, solar panels, says isn’t quite feasible).

Having said all that, Hubbert did fortunately have the all-too-rare understanding that

“One of the most ubiquitous expressions in the language right now is growth – how to maintain our growth. If we could maintain it, it would destroy us.”

So although, and from my understandings, Hubbert had the questionable belief that nuclear power, and then solar panels, could provide not quite infinite growth but (rather conveniently?) a kind of infinite steady state of what the current energetic usage happened to be at the time, he did nonetheless realize that none of this could do anything for the problems of overpopulation and diminishing water supplies.

Bringing things into the present, Inman conveys the fact that worldwide conventional oil extraction rates peaked (or perhaps hit their plateau) in 2006 at 70 million barrels per year, finally dropping down to 69 million barrels per year in 2014. As it is, the only thing keeping overall oil extraction rates increasing – and giving the last push to the economic growth which Hubbert so despised – are the unconventional oil supplies of tight oil (via fracking) and tar sands oil.

This brings us back to Technocracy’s disdain for “the price system” (or as Hubbert put it, “the monetary culture”), which was the status quo and scarcity-based economics system that measures everything in dollars and cents, and which ignores physical limits. For as Technocracy conversely saw it, money would be abandoned for “energy certificates,” allowing for everything to be paid in their energy equivalent.

Upon first coming across the name M. King Hubbert some ten years ago I happened to read about Hubbert’s disagreement with our practice of fractional-reserve banking, of which I’ve never seen mentioned again until Inman’s book (kind of, as Inman doesn’t mention fractional-reserve banking directly). It is from this knowledge that I’ve come to understand the situation of diminishing energy supplies: since money is a proxy for energy, limits on energy supplies will imply limits to the continuance of our economic (Ponzi scheme) system, leading to an inability for sufficient payments to service even the interest payments on previous loans – which implies and will contribute to the collapse (implosion) of economies, be it slowly or quickly. As Hubbert put it, “exponential growth is about over. We’re entering something new.”

But not being much of a fan of a grandiose Technate myself (nor of the belief that there would ultimately be enough alternative energy supplies to maintain such a massive and centralized system anyway), we could still work off of Hubbert’s disdain for “the monetary culture” towards something like the Ecological Economics of Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, a discipline which is also in favour of moving away from fractional-reserve banking and the notion of infinite growth. And since peak oil means growth is coming to an end, perhaps a look to biophysical economics (see Energy and the Wealth of Nations by Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard, or the new journal BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, edited by Hall, Ugo Bardi, and Gaël Giraud) could help us to envision a worthy alternative to Technocracy’s monetary substitution.

Regardless, there does seem to be merit for Hubbert’s belief in perhaps a partially planned economy, supposing that that would even be politically possible. Market forces are quite obviously doing little to nothing to ween us away from the usage of fossil fuels (be they diminishing or not), and the primary effect that high oil prices (reaching $147 a few years back) had was to spur investment in the higher costing unconventionals.

In the meantime, supposing that conventional and unconventional oil supplies continue their slight overall increase for years to come, this also poses a problem in light of carbon dioxide levels contributing to climate change. Inman thus poses the ultimately unavoidable and extremely pertinent questions: Do we really think market forces will come to our rescue? And if not, are we going to impose limits on ourselves, or are we simply going to sit back and wait until nature imposes those limits for us?

So whether you’re new to the notion of peaking oil supplies or rather familiar with it, I can certainly say that The Oracle of Oil has much new to shine on the story – and now history – of peak oil. With oil supplies being what they currently are, and with no off-planet supply to make up for what will this time not just be a US shortfall but a planetary shortfall, Inman’s book could certainly do us a favour by helping us to familiarize ourselves with the reality of peak oil, and by helping us to make M. King Hubbert the household name it ought to be.

That is of course a lot to ask, and after the virtual silence on peak oil that occurred after the global peak of conventional oil extraction rates in 2006 (to go along with all that has ensued since), one couldn’t be blamed for expecting little different upon the reaching of the global peak of conventional and unconventional oil extraction rates in the coming months or years (?). But one can always hope of course.

Godspeed the overall global peak?

book review: On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin wrote this most famous book in 1859 so I had modest expectations given how much we have since learned about evolution and genetics.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book has stood the test of time very well.

Darwin had an excellent mind and writing skills. Highly recommended.

After completing this book I recommend you read Varki’s book where he builds on Darwin’s theory to explain the singular emergence of an intelligent species with full theory of mind, and some of our constructive and destructive behaviors.

book review: Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley

A new book titled Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley is available to read online for free here.

The book is an excellent primer on energy and does a nice job of summarizing the challenges we face as fossil energy depletes.

Heinberg’s style is to present an intelligent fact-based view of the challenges while simultaneously offering positive things we could choose to do to make the future less bad. He avoids predicting pain or collapse although having followed him for years I think this is likely a politically correct veneer. He also tends to ignore the effect of de-growth on our debt-based economy and the resulting small amount of wealth we will have available for investment.

I like the fact that the book uses a wide lens and discusses things often ignored like high temperature industrial processes that cannot run on renewable energy (concrete, metal, and silicon chip production, for example) and discusses the use of fossil energy as feedstocks (fertilizer needed to feed 7 billion, for example). I also like that it discusses honestly the need to reduce our population.

If you’d like a calm intelligent summary of our predicament with lots of space to draw your own conclusions this book a great place to start.

As an aside, I remember David Fridley from an excellent talk he gave in 2007 on the Myths of Biofuels. It’s still relevant and worth watching here.

book review: A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter

http://www.amazon.com/Full-Life-Reflections-Ninety/dp/1501115634

Jimmy Carter has long been one of the few world leaders that I respect.

I just finished his latest book which provides a summary of his life and core beliefs.

Jimmy Carter really did have a full life. The breadth of his experience and accomplishments are remarkable and inspirational. He was a farmer, business man, nuclear submariner, wise president, peace envoy, humanitarian, and community leader.

Carter grew up in the depression where he learned the importance of hard work, self-sufficiency, frugality, honesty, and community. These values guided the remainder of his life, including his one term as US president.

I’ve listened many times to Carter’s 1979 speech in which he explains the reality of finite fossil energy and what citizens and government should do in response. It’s by far the best wisdom and policy I’ve ever heard from a leader.

The citizens rejected Carter’s tonic for Reagan’s morning in America. For me this is the saddest point in democratic history.

Carter advocated conservation, austerity, and living within the constraints of non-renewable resources. Instead we chose to use debt to mask reality and to climb a cliff that will be very difficult to safely climb down from.

I read the book primarily because I was hoping to hear his latest insights on energy, environment, and the economy now that 40 years have passed since his presidency. I was disappointed that he said nothing on the topic, nor did he elaborate on his energy position of the 70’s. Most other topics were covered in quite a bit of detail so I found this omission odd. He didn’t hesitate from saying “I told you so” on many other topics. It makes me wonder.

Perhaps Carter’s understanding of thermodynamics and the relationship between energy, environment, and wealth is less than I had hoped. Perhaps his understanding is limited to lessons learned from having to live within meager means during the depression. Perhaps he is afraid to speak about our current situation. I don’t know.

Setting my energy disappointment aside, and turning a blind eye to his religious beliefs, I very much enjoyed the book and recommend it.

Jimmy Carter was and is a great man who lived an inspirational life.

book review: The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane

Nick Lane has long been one of my favorite science writers, setting aside Varki of course who will always have a special place in my heart.

Nick Lane’s last book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution” discussed the 10 most important inventions of evolution: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. I read the book 4 times, was enthralled each time, and no doubt will read it again.

An earlier book by Nick Lane, “Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World” discussed the amazing transformation of our planet by photosynthesis. After reading this book I look at grass with different eyes. And I love to tell the story of oxygen to any soul who will listen.

In his latest book “The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” Lane has outdone himself.

The book is sweeping in scope, tackles the most cosmic question, as well as some important earthly questions, is beautifully written, and reads like a page turning mystery thriller.

There is so much here, where to begin?

Lane presents the latest science on the origin of life and makes a compelling case that prokaryotic (simple single cell) life is probably common throughout the universe because all that is required is rock, water, CO2 and energy, all of which are found within alkaline hydrothermal vents on geologically active planets, of which there are 40 billion in our galaxy alone, and probably a similar number in each of the other 100 billion galaxies.

Life emerges as a gradual and predictable transition from geochemistry to biochemistry. Life is not some spiritual mystery, but rather a predictable outcome of the fact that the universe abhors an energy gradient, and life is its best mechanism for degrading energy.

This theory elegantly explains why LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life) and all life that followed is chemiosmotic meaning that it powers itself with a strange highly unintuitive mechanism that pumps protons across a membrane.

The human body, for example, pumps a staggering 10 to the 21st power protons per second of life.

If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.

Lane then turns his attention to the origin of complex life: the eukaryotic cell. All of the multicellular life on earth that normally interests us such as plants, animals, fungi, and hot girls or guys, have a common eukaryote ancestor, and it appears this ancestor emerged only once on earth about 2 billion years after the emergence of simple life. Lane considers this the black hole of biology. A vital but rarely acknowledged singularity that requires explanation.

Lane presents a theory to explain the emergence of the eukaryote and shows that unlike simple life which is probable and predictable, complex life is improbable and unpredictable. It depended on a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) somewhat analogous to a freak accident. The resulting LECA (Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor), having 2 genomes that needed to cooperate and evolve in harmony, was probably fragile, sickly, and vulnerable to extinction which forced it to evolve many unusual characteristics common to complex life such as the nucleus, sex, two sexes, programmed cell death, germline-soma distinction, and trade-offs between fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, and ageing and death.

As the endosymbiont (cell within the cell) evolved into mitochondria (the energy powerhouses), eukaryotes were able to break through the energy per gene barrier that constrained the morphological complexity of bacteria and archaea for 2 billion years. Suddenly there was enough energy to power the evolution of complex structure, multi-cellular life, nail salons, and the iPhone.

How lucky that our minds, the most improbable biological machines in the universe, are now a conduit for this restless flow of energy, that we can think about why life is the way it is.

This theory will be particularly satisfying to students of human overshoot who understand that abundant non-renewable energy is the main reason for the size and complexity of today’s human civilization.

The universe, life, and complexity are all about energy.

I am a fan and student of Varki’s theory that human success is the result of a rare simultaneous mutation for denial of reality and an extended theory of mind.

Combining Nick Lane’s theory with Ajit Varki’s theory, and an understanding of our place on the overshoot curve, leads one to an amazing and almost mystical conclusion.

Intelligent life with an extended theory of mind is the result of a rare and unpredictable double mutation, layered on the emergence of complex cells, another rare and unpredictable accident. Intelligent life in the universe is therefore rare and will probably exist for only a short time before its intelligence fueled overshoot, and denial thereof, causes it to go extinct.

The fact that we are alive to witness and understand a very rare peak of intelligent life in the universe is cause for genuine awe.

We should savor it while it lasts.

Here is Nick Lane talking about some of the ideas in his book. I much preferred the book because the subject is too deep to be covered in a 30 minute talk but it’s a taste if you don’t have time for the full meal.

Here is an excerpt from the book’s epilogue.

All life on earth is chemiosmotic, depending on proton gradients across membranes to drive carbon and energy metabolism. We have explored the possible origins and consequences of this peculiar trait. We’ve seen that living requires a continuous driving force, an unceasing chemical reaction that produces reactive intermediates, including molecules like ATP, as by-products. Such molecules drive the energy-demanding reactions that make up cells. This flux of carbon and energy must have been even greater at the origins of life, before the evolution of biological catalysts, which constrained the flow of metabolism within narrow channels. Very few natural environments meet the requirements for life – a continuous, high flux of carbon and usable energy across mineral catalysts, constrained in a naturally microcompartmentalised system, capable of concentrating products and venting waste. While there may be other environments that meet these criteria, alkaline hydrothermal vents most certainly do, and such vents are likely to be common on wet rocky planets across the universe. The shopping list for life in these vents is just rock (olivine), water and CO2, three of the most ubiquitous substances in the universe. Suitable conditions for the origin of life might be present, right now, on some 40 billion planets in the Milky Way alone.

Alkaline hydrothermal vents come with both a problem and a solution: they are rich in H2, but this gas does not react readily with CO2. We have seen that natural proton gradients across thin semiconducting mineral barriers could theoretically drive the formation of organics, and ultimately the emergence of cells, within the pores of the vents. If so, life depended from the very beginning on proton gradients (and iron–sulphur minerals) to break down the kinetic barriers to the reaction of H2 and CO2. To grow on natural proton gradients, these early cells required leaky membranes, capable of retaining the molecules needed for life without cutting themselves off from the energising flux of protons. That, in turn, precluded their escape from the vents, except through the strait gates of a strict succession of events (requiring an antiporter), which enabled the coevolution of active ion pumps and modern phospholipid membranes. Only then could cells leave the vents, and colonise the oceans and rocks of the early earth. We saw that this strict succession of events could explain the paradoxical properties of LUCA, the last universal common ancestor of life, as well as the deep divergence of bacteria and archaea. Not least, these strict requirements can explain why all life on earth is chemiosmotic – why this strange trait is as universal as the genetic code itself.

This scenario – an environment that is common in cosmic terms, but with a strict set of constraints governing outcomes – makes it likely that life elsewhere in the universe will also be chemiosmotic, and so will face parallel opportunities and constraints. Chemiosmotic coupling gives life unlimited metabolic versatility, allowing cells to ‘eat’ and ‘breathe’ practically anything. Just as genes can be passed around by lateral gene transfer, because the genetic code is universal, so too the toolkit for metabolic adaptation to very diverse environments can be passed around, as all cells use a common operating system. I would be amazed if we did not find bacteria right across the universe, including our own solar system, all working in much the same way, powered by redox chemistry and proton gradients across membranes. It’s predictable from first principles.

But if that’s true, then complex life elsewhere in the universe will face exactly the same constraints as eukaryotes on earth – aliens should have mitochondria too. We’ve seen that all eukaryotes share a common ancestor which arose just once, through a rare endosymbiosis between prokaryotes. We know of two such endosymbioses between bacteria (Figure 25) – three, if we include Parakaryon myojinensis – so we know that it is possible for bacteria to get inside bacteria without phagocytosis. Presumably there must have been thousands, perhaps millions, of cases over 4 billion years of evolution. It’s a bottleneck, but not a stringent one. In each case, we would expect to see gene loss from the endosymbionts, and a tendency to greater size and genomic complexity in the host cell – exactly what we do see in Parakaryon myojinensis. But we’d also expect intimate conflict between the host and the endosymbiont – this is the second part of the bottleneck, a double whammy that makes the evolution of complex life genuinely difficult. We saw that the first eukaryotes most likely evolved quickly in small populations; the very fact that the common ancestor of eukaryotes shares so many traits, none of which are found in bacteria, implies a small, unstable, sexual population. If Parakaryon myojinensis is recapitulating eukaryotic evolution, as I suspect, its extremely low population density (just one specimen in 15 years of hunting) is predictable. Its most likely fate is extinction. Perhaps it will die because it has not successfully excluded all its ribosomes from its nuclear compartment, or because it has not yet ‘invented’ sex. Or perhaps, chance in a million, it will succeed, and seed a second coming of eukaryotes on earth.

I think we can reasonably conclude that complex life will be rare in the universe – there is no innate tendency in natural selection to give rise to humans or any other form of complex life. It is far more likely to get stuck at the bacterial level of complexity. I can’t put a statistical probability on that. The existence of Parakaryon myojinensis might be encouraging for some – multiple origins of complexity on earth means that complex life might be more common elsewhere in the universe. Maybe. What I would argue with more certainty is that, for energetic reasons, the evolution of complex life requires an endosymbiosis between two prokaryotes, and that is a rare random event, disturbingly close to a freak accident, made all the more difficult by the ensuing intimate conflict between cells. After that, we are back to standard natural selection. We’ve seen that many properties shared by eukaryotes, from the nucleus to sex, are predictable from first principles. We can go much further. The evolution of two sexes, the germline–soma distinction, programmed cell death, mosaic mitochondria, and the trade-offs between aerobic fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, ageing and death, all these traits emerge, predictably, from the starting point that is a cell within a cell. Would it all happen over again? I think that much of it would. Incorporating energy into evolution is long overdue, and begins to lay a more predictive basis to natural selection.

Energy is far less forgiving than genes. Look around you. This wonderful world reflects the power of mutations and recombination, genetic change – the basis for natural selection. You share some of your genes with the tree through the window, but you and that tree parted company very early in eukaryotic evolution, 1.5 billion years ago, each following a different course permitted by different genes, the product of mutations, recombination, and natural selection. You run around, and I hope still climb trees occasionally; they bend gently in the breeze and convert the air into more trees, the magic trick to end them all. All of those differences are written in the genes, genes that derive from your common ancestor but have now mostly diverged beyond recognition. All those changes were permitted, selected, in the long course of evolution. Genes are almost infinitely permissive: anything that can happen will happen.

But that tree has mitochondria too, which work in much the same way as its chloroplasts, endlessly transferring electrons down its trillions upon trillions of respiratory chains, pumping protons across membranes as they always did. As you always did. These same shuttling electrons and protons have sustained you from the womb: you pump 1021 protons per second, every second, without pause. Your mitochondria were passed on from your mother, in her egg cell, her most precious gift, the gift of living that goes back unbroken, unceasing, generation on generation, to the first stirrings of life in hydrothermal vents, 4 billion years ago. Tamper with this reaction at your peril. Cyanide will stem the flow of electrons and protons, and bring your life to an abrupt end. Ageing will do the same, but slowly, gently. Death is the ceasing of electron and proton flux, the settling of membrane potential, the end of that unbroken flame. If life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest, death is nothing but that electron come to rest.

This energy flux is astonishing and unforgiving. Any change over seconds or minutes could bring the whole experiment to an end. Spores can pull it off, descending into metabolic dormancy from which they must feel lucky to emerge. But for the rest of us … we are sustained by the same processes that powered the first living cells. These processes have never changed in a fundamental way; how could they? Life is for the living. Living needs an unceasing flux of energy. It’s hardly surprising that energy flux puts major constraints on the path of evolution, defining what is possible. It’s not surprising that bacteria keep doing what bacteria do, unable to tinker in any serious way with the flame that keeps them growing, dividing, conquering. It’s not surprising that the one accident that did work out, that singular endosymbiosis between prokaryotes, did not tinker with the flame, but ignited it in many copies in each and every eukaryotic cell, finally giving rise to all complex life. It’s not surprising that keeping this flame alive is vital to our physiology and evolution, explaining many quirks of our past and our lives today. How lucky that our minds, the most improbable biological machines in the universe, are now a conduit for this restless flow of energy, that we can think about why life is the way it is. May the proton-motive force be with you!

By Ray Grigg: The Evolution of Denial

Ray Grigg writes an environmental column in my local newspaper and lives on an island near my home.

We’ve never met but he’s written the best review of Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s book on denial that I have seen anywhere.

http://tidechange.ca/2013/07/17/the-evolution-of-denial-by-ray-grigg/

Consciousness can be costly. Philosophers and poets have long pondered this dilemma. But the idea has rarely entered the theories of evolutionary scientists until Dr. Danny Brower introduced it to Dr. Ajit Varki, an oncologist who is also an authority on cellular biology and an expert on anthropogeny (the origin of humans).Dr. Varki met Dr. Danny Brower for a brief but intense hour at a 2005 conference on the origins of human uniqueness. As a geneticist, Dr. Brower was fascinated with the evolution of human consciousness. But he was less curious about the human ability to be aware of their own minds and the minds of others as he was about the apparent inability of other animals to develop the same facility. Whales, elephants, apes, dolphins, and some birds such as magpies provide clear evidence of self-awareness. Even though they have existed in evolutionary history for much longer than humans, however, they have never developed the same degree of self-awareness, empathetic sensitivity, social sophistication and intellectual acumen as humans. Dr. Brower thought he had an answer.

His answer haunted Dr. Varki. So, when Dr. Brower died suddenly in 2007, leaving an incomplete manuscript, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, Dr. Varki inherited the task of finishing it. The completed book explores the advantages, costs and implications of our human capacity to understand, empathize, organize and act, the attributes that define us as individuals, societies and civilizations.

Dr. Varki notes that some species of animals seem capable of recognizing themselves as individuals and of mourning the death of their fellows. Such animals may even recognize their own mortality, a traumatizing experience that could be psychologically crippling without the protection of an appropriate defence mechanism. And this mechanism, the theory proposes, is denial.

Humans may have succeeded where other species have failed because we have simultaneously developed the contradictory capacity for both self-awareness and denial. Thus we are capable of exercising all the intellectual, empathetic, social and cultural skills that are responsible for our amazing accomplishments but we are also capable of isolating ourselves from the inevitable death which shadows all our efforts. This capacity, the theory suggests, is the adroit device of evolution that allows us to function while avoiding the heavy psychological cost of knowing the inevitable consequence of being alive. The problem presented by self-awareness is solved simply by sidestepping the reality we do not want to confront.

As Dr. Varki outlines in his elaboration of Dr. Brower’s theory, this is a useful strategy for the individual. And it has advantages for society, too. So people undertake enterprises they would never begin if they actually confronted the reality of the challenges. Denial forms a partnership with optimism to remove the obstacles preventing us from attempting the unpredictable, difficult or impossible. Travelling to the moon, rowing across the Pacific, or working faithfully for 45 years to reach a retirement pension all require an erasing of very credible risks and obstacles. Such ordinary activities as having a baby, driving on a freeway, flying in an airplane or buying a lottery ticket all require acts of denial. Even falling in love is an act that doesn’t consider the possibility of heartbreak. So risk and failure are blindly overlooked for the prospect of benefit. Bravery could be one word to describe such behaviour — if we were fully aware. But a better word might be denial, a strategy which Dr. Varki refers to as “terror management”.

The shortcoming of denial, however, is that it tends to be indiscriminate — so we deny things we should confront. Denial is also a much better coping strategy for an individual than for a species. Indeed, the loss of a few individuals because of their refusal to confront reality is unlikely to endanger the viability of an entire society. But this constraint no longer applies in a globalized world. If denial is responsible for a nuclear holocaust, then this lurking Armageddon could obliterate much of civilization as we know it. What if denial results in the use of uncontrollable biological weapons, or the release of a virus which could initiate an unstoppable global pandemic? What if genetic tinkering inadvertently creates an organism which crashes the planet’s biological systems? The denial mechanism which once affected only local people in local places could potentially affect life on the entire planet.

This is the context in which Dr. Varki raises the subject of climate change. The mechanisms we use to avoid confronting this threat are extraordinary. It is a silence that pervades many conversation. It is a subject that elections commonly avoid. It is a science that politicians suppress — at least in Canada where those who raise it are deemed pessimists, heretics, cynics, enemies, radicals.

Of course, reality is remarkably insistent. So the trauma of extreme weather events force climate change into public awareness where it is too often heard but denied. The required remedial action is invariably postponed. The necessary government regulations become promises that never materialize. Excuses and rationalizations abound as the carbon dioxide levels rise and the planet’s weather becomes more unusual, threatening and destructive. Dr. Varki summarizes the stakes succinctly. “This is the one case,” he says of global warming, “where we cannot afford to get it wrong the first time.”

Dr. Varki concedes that his refinements to Dr. Brower’s theory need more scientific study and evaluation. But, he contends, the theory seems to fit the evidence. More sobering, however, is the way the theory seems to fit our history.

book review: The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager

The Alchemy of Air is one of the better books I’ve read.

http://www.amazon.com/Alchemy-Air-Jewish-Scientific-Discovery-ebook/dp/B001EUGCTS

As an engineer I’ve always been interested in the history of important science and there is nothing more important than the Haber-Bosch process which uses fossil energy to produce inexpensive fertilizer that enabled the green revolution and human overshoot.

Lest you doubt its significance, 50% of the nitrogen in our bodies was manufactured in a Haber-Bosch factory, and it is the primary reason our population grew from 1 billion to 7 billion over the last 100 years.

In addition, our liberal use of manufactured fertilizer has distorted the nitrogen cycle creating dead zones in the ocean, and contributed to pollution that is causing the decline of trees worldwide.

The Haber-Bosch process also produces the raw materials necessary for explosives and was a major contributor to the lethality of World Wars I and II.

Haber-Bosch technology was adapted to produce gasoline from coal which powered the Nazi war machine, and someday will probably power industrial civilization’s last gasp when real oil becomes too expensive to extract.

There’s a lot more in the book that I enjoyed.

The detailed history of fertilizer and the wars over its scarce non-renewable resources prior to Haber-Bosch was fascinating.

The behind the scenes look at the role of technology and big business in WWI and WWII was very interesting.

The story of how great minds were destroyed by a scapegoat seeking Hitler provides insight into what we’ll likely see in the future.

Lastly, I found the human side interesting in that men who accomplished much and earned great wealth were still unhappy and unsure of themselves.

I’ll be reading it a second time. Highly recommended.