By Paul Arbair: The World in 2018 (part 4)

Paul Arbair - The World in 2018

I just stumbled on Paul Arbair. I’m very impressed.

I now need two hands to count the number of people in the world that understand and regularly write about the reality of our predicament. Although apparently Paul Arbair is a pen name (his avatar is a Polar Bear), so maybe one hand will continue to suffice.

Here Arbair explains the history and centrality of energy to the success of humans, how economics (and all the other social sciences) are embarrassingly ignorant of this vital relationship, how we have used debt to mask a decline in the quality of energy and to accelerate ecosystem damage, and how we are fast approaching an unpleasant end game.

I note that Arbair concludes his essay by discussing our near universal denial of reality.

Following are a few paragraphs I extracted from the essay, but I recommend you read the whole thing.

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/102935372/posts/1485

 

The issues with conventional economic theories and models are many, varied and complex. They include a number of flaws and blind spots, which have been laid bare by the Great Financial Crisis and its aftermath. Most importantly, they include the almost complete ignorance – or rather voluntary omission – of the fundamental biophysical foundations of the economic process. This ignorance of how the flows of energy and matter underpin economic activity – and economic growth – results from the evacuation of the natural world from mainstream economic thought, which occurred in the 20thcentury, when it suddenly looked like homo sapiens had managed to conquer nature and the curse of resource scarcity had been all but defeated.

 

Losing thrust at high altitude

However, in advanced economies this energy boost started to wear out in the 1970s, for several reasons. First, energy use ran into a classic phenomenon of diminishing returns: the low-hanging fruits of economic growth had been picked first, many large-scale infrastructure investments with a high economic multiplier effect (including electrification) had already been made, and in many industries and sectors maximum machine speed/velocity was already being reached. Just like the average speed of automobiles, motorbikes or planes, the average speed of industrial machines in many sectors increased much faster until the late 1960s/early 1970s than after that. The physical and economic limits to energy-based speed-ups thus probably played a role in the sudden slowdown in productivity growth at the turn of the 1970s. Second, increasing concerns about the atmospheric and ground pollution resulting from fossil energy use – and from material use made possible by fossil fuels – triggered the adoption at the beginning of the 1970s of the first set of environmental regulations in Western countries, which established some constraints on the further expansion of energy use. Third, oil depletion in the U.S. – until then the world’s largest producer – and a subsequent realignment of energy geopolitics lead to a dramatic rise in the price of oil (i.e. the 1973 oil crisis), which rapidly reverberated across the economy. This triggered a considerable slowdown of the rate of increase of energy consumption, resulting in much slower economic growth. The combination of economic stagnation and soaring price inflation came to be known as ‘stagflation’, and lasted until the beginning of the 1980s, when oil prices finally started to decrease. After a sharp growth slowdown in the 1970s, world energy use per capita started to decline slightly in the 1980s and 1990s, an only picked up again at the beginning of the 21st century, as a result of China’s rapid expansion and massive use of domestic coal resources.

Oil depletion and its effects have remained a constant source of concern – and of geopolitical tensions – since the oil crises of the 1970s. The threat of oil supply shortages was partly alleviated in the 1980s and 1990s by the discovery and exploitation of new major oil fields in North America (Alaska) and Europe (North Sea), but it resurfaced in the 2000s when wars disrupted production in the Middle East, oil prices spiked, and fears of an imminent peak and decline of global oil production (‘peak oil’) grew. These fears have since then receded, largely as a result of the exploitation of ‘tight oil’ (also called ‘shale oil’) in North America, using hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) and horizontal drilling, as well as to other ‘unconventional’ sources (oil sands, deepwater oil) and to the use of enhanced recovery techniques in conventional oil fields. These are however temporary fixes: shale oil production is expected to peak in just a few years time, and global oil discoveries have fallen to their lowest point since the 1940s, prompting rising fears of a supply crunch – and possible price spike – around 2020.

While concerns about oil depletion – and fossil fuels depletion in general – tend to mostly focus on quantitative aspects (i.e. availability and affordability), qualitative aspects are often overlooked. Yet they are as, or even more, significant. In fact, depletion means that it is getting more and more difficult, costly, resource-intensive and polluting to get oil – and other fossil fuels – out of the ground. It also means that the energetic quality (measured in terms of exergy) and productivity (measured in terms of net energy or EROI) of what is extracted tends to go down, resulting in a decreasing capacity to power useful and productive work, and in a decreasing ability to provide ‘surplus energy’ to society (i.e. energy that can effectively be used for doing other things than finding, extracting, processing, converting, transporting and distributing energy). According to some estimates the EROI of global oil and gas has declined by nearly 50% in the last two decades, meaning that new technology and production methods (deep water or horizontal drilling) help to maintain production but appear insufficient to counter the decline in the energetic productivity of conventional oil and gas. In other words, we are now entering the age of ‘crappy oil’, or at least we are clearly heading that way…

The declining energetic quality and productivity of fossil energy resources has resulted in the last decades in a rising energy intensity of the global energy system. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the share of the world’s Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) used by the energy supply sector (which comprises all energy extraction, conversion, storage, transmission, and distribution processes that deliver final energy to end users) expanded from 24% in 1973 to 31% in 2015, while the share available for Total Final Consumption (TFC) by other sectors of the economy went down from 76% to 69%. Overall, the quantity of energy supplied to end-use sectors (i.e. industry, transport, residential, services, agriculture, etc.) rose by 101% over the period, but the quantity of energy that had to be used by the energy system to supply this energy to end users increased by 196% (source: IEA Key World Energy Statistics 2017). Overall, a rising share of the fossil energy we get out of the ground therefore ends up being used by the energy system itself – or in other words the ‘energy cost of energy’ (ECOE) is rising, and the trend is accelerating. This relative energetic productivity decline not only constrains the growth the amount of ‘net energy’ that the global energy system can make available for use by other sectors, it also increases the share of those sectors’ output that has to be consumed by the energy sector. As the energy sector becomes less productive, it indeed tends to consume not only more energy but also more materials, more labour, more services, etc. A rising share of the output of other sectors has to be dedicated to servicing the needs of the energy sector, which ends up constraining economic growth and eroding economic prosperity (i.e. the capacity for societies to dedicate a rising fraction of economic output to discretionary uses).

Therefore, starting in the 1970s fossil energy progressively ceased to boost global economic growth as it had done since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and most particularly during the post-WWII period. The world’s energy-based growth engines, it suddenly appeared, were losing thrust, exposing the global economy to growing and hazardous turbulence while flying fast and at high altitude…

 

We are now in the tail end of what arguably constitutes the biggest bubble in economic history, the ‘everything bubble’ that has been blown in response to the Great Financial Crisis. This ‘everything bubble’ concerns all asset classes, and its effects directly or indirectly extend to the whole of the global economy. There is no single activity, sector, firm, household or public body in advanced economies – as well as in most emerging economies – whose current economic and financial situation is not either determined, underpinned or heavily influenced by the ‘everything bubble’, and not a single of them will remain unaffected when the bubble pops. To some extent, it could be argued that it’s the global economic and financial system itself that has now become the bubble. Most of us fail to understand or acknowledge it, probably because the bubble is so massive and so extended this time that it is paradoxically more difficult to recognise than more circumscribed and classic asset bubbles. Probably, as well, because our collective intoxication with technology and with the promises of a techno future is increasingly blinding us to the reality of the economic system we’re living in. Probably, also, because the consequences of our global economy being predicated on the existence and perpetuation of an all-encompassing financial bubble are too uncomfortable to contemplate. Yet we are inevitably approaching the unavoidable denouement of our bubble cycle, and the slight economic recovery about which we have been rejoicing of late might now be bringing us there faster as it puts pressure on central banks to tighten monetary policies more rapidly and decisively, thus getting us closer to the point where the bubble edifice starts to unravel.

Debt accumulation and financialisation, globalisation, liberalisation and ‘technologisation’ have thus largely failed, over the last four decades, to adequately compensate the global economy’s waning fossil energy boost. They have nevertheless lifted economic growth enough to continuously push up the use of fossil fuels and of other natural resources, as well as the environmental damage resulting from this use. Half of all oil burned by the human race has been burned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and almost one-third of all human emissions of greenhouse gases occurred in the last twenty years. After remaining flat during the 2014-16 period, these emissions started to rise again in 2017 as economic growth was picking up. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been rising increasingly fast over the last decades, destabilising the planet’s climate system and setting in motion a climate change dynamic that we only partly understand, that we cannot control, and that we already know we will be unable to fully mitigate. And if climate change is probably the major threat facing humanity, it is also just one of the symptoms of the destabilisation of the Earth system that is occurring and accelerating as a result of homo sapiens’ relentless activity. Every year we consistently increase our use of non-renewable resources, thus drawing down our reserves, degrading our environment and crowding out other life forms ever faster. Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), i.e. the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds the planet’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year, now falls in early August, vs. the end of December at the beginning of the 1970s. Our demand for renewable natural resources and the services they provide is now equivalent to that of more than 1.5 Earths, and is on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-century. All this, it needs to be remembered, is only occurring because of the burning of fossil fuels and the energy and material input into human activity that it makes possible. Scaling back our use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and eradicating it before the end of the 21st century, has now become the only way for humans to avoid terminal environmental catastrophe.

 

‘The World in 2018’, hence, is a world that has been unable to find adequate substitutes to the long-term economic boost it received from exploiting fossil energy, and that has merely managed to substitute genuine economic growth with debt accumulation and financial manipulation. It is a world that has been deceiving itself through financial leverage about the essence of its economic growth and progress, and that is still very much in denial about the scale of the consequences of the energy and resources binge this growth and progress have entailed. It is a world that has now left itself just a few decades to stop using the energy sources that underpin its modern economy and even modern civilization – or that risks seeing this modern economy crashing down and modern civilization burn itself to the ground. All this, of course, is not exactly how economists and policy makers typically talk about the state of the world or of the economy. It is also not exactly what dominates most people’s perceptions of their economic and financial conditions, which remain largely based on shorter-term considerations. Yet it is nevertheless the reality of our world – a reality that increasingly influences and shapes the course of events around us, and that will increasingly impose itself to all of us over the coming years. A reality, as well, that determines or at least significantly constrains the economic, social and political prospects and options we now have. We will start looking at these prospects and options in more details in the next instalment of this series.

The Great Story (A Reality Based Religion led by Michael Dowd)

2-gs-photo

Michael Dowd recently introduced himself in a comment on one of my blog posts. Reviewing his large body of work has been a pleasant surprise because I thought I was aware of most of the thinkers and activists in the overshoot space, and Dowd has some excellent fresh ideas.

We seem to share a few things in common. We were born within 7 days of each other. We have been deeply influenced by many of the same great minds. We have come to similar conclusions about the severity of human overshoot. And we both would like to find some path to making the future less bad.

I’ve long thought there might only be two possible paths to pulling humanity back from the precipice. All of our destructive behaviors were created in the crucible of evolution when daily survival was paramount and overshoot was a distant future problem. Any “solution” must acknowledge the genetic underpinning of our behaviors and find a way to shift those behaviors in a positive direction.

One possible path is to acknowledge the genetic disposition for spirituality in humans, and the power religions have had throughout history to influence behavior, and to create a new religion with an overshoot harm reduction agenda. This is the path it seems Dowd has chosen.

Dowd leads a new religion grounded in science and reality that worships the universe and life, and that acknowledges the special responsibility our species has because of its rare and possibly unique ability to understand how the universe and life were created, and how our behaviors are placing us and other species in peril.

Here are the ten commandments:

ten-commandments-one-slide

This is the third of a three-part series of videos Dowd recommended as an overview of his movement. I think this sermon is excellent and worth your time.

Dowd thinks that religions are stories created by humans to explain the reality they currently live in. Our reality today is much different from the reality 2000 years ago. Today we understand the science of lightning and floods and famine and plagues and life and death. Dowd says we need to update our religious stories to reflect our current understanding of the world. He makes a persuasive case that this new story is much more majestic and inspiring than any of the old stories. An example Dowd gives is that everything in the universe, including amazing brains capable of understanding this paragraph, emerged from a cloud of hydrogen that obeyed a few well understood physical laws.

Dowd thinks the genetic underpinning of religion is the brain’s propensity to give human characteristics to non-human things in our world. I do not disagree with Dowd that the brain has this behavior but I would explain it differently. The human brain is a computing machine that creates models to explain and predict reality. We create new models using fragments of models we already have to explain what we see and to influence what we hope will happen. Some of these models (or stories) have evolved over time into thousands of religions and gods.

So far so good. Where we may disagree is that I think Varki’s MORT theory points to a deeper and more important genetic foundation of religion, denial of mortality. There is much evidence to this claim which I explored here and here. An important point being that if religions were mainly about explanatory stories and not about denial of mortality we would expect to see a few random religions with life after death stories, but not as we observe, a life after death story central to every single one of the thousands of religions, including new religions like Scientology. As a famous comedian/actor whose name we may no longer speak once said, “I don’t want to live on in the minds of my fans, I want to live on in my apartment”.

The reproductive fitness of an intelligent social species is often improved by a more powerful brain. Therefore there is evolutionary pressure in some species to become smarter. As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. The MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that sufficient brain power to understand mortality, on its own, lowers reproductive fitness through reduced risk taking and depression because all complex species have evolved behaviors to avoid injury and death. Thus there is a barrier to increased brain power that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of mortality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life for 2 billion years until a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) created the eukaryotic cell.

Humans are the only species, so far, on our planet to have crossed the barrier. Several other intelligent social species like elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and crows may be blocked at the barrier. It seems likely we outcompeted or killed all of our many hominid cousins that were blocked at the barrier for over a million years.

Evolution appears to have implemented denial of mortality in humans by tweaking the fear suppression module in our brain, which resulted in behavior that manifests as broad denial of all unpleasant realities, including mortality.

This then leads to the second promising path for trying to make the future less bad.  I believe it is our inherited denial of reality that is the most important obstacle to shifting human behavior in a positive direction.

There are several encouraging examples that suggest broad awareness of a harmful inherited behavior can shift society’s average behavior in a positive direction. I plan to explore these examples in a later essay.

So my chosen path is to try to increase awareness of our strong genetic tendency to deny the behaviors that cause overshoot, and to deny the imminent dangers of overshoot.

I nevertheless applaud Dowd’s chosen path and wish him well. It will be interesting to see if a religion can succeed that conflicts with the underlying goals of our genes, namely to maximize replication by competing for finite resources.

It must have been so much easier 2000 years ago when the message of religions was to go forth, multiply, and exploit the earth’s bounty that God created for the exclusive benefit of his chosen people.

I know from experience that a message of no more than one child, austerity, and conservation is a tough sell.

I recommend you spend some time at Dowd’s site The Great Story. It has a deep library of wisdom from many great minds relevant to our predicament.

Dowd has invested a large amount of time creating audio versions of important books and documents. I’m currently re-reading his audiobook version of William R. Catton, Jr.’s seminal 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

By JT Roberts: On Resources and How the World Really Works

I don’t know who JT Roberts is but he is very bright and is an excellent writer. I stumbled on some comments she made in a recent post by Tim Morgan and I thought they were so good I’ve copied them here.

https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/111-a-spike-to-puncture-the-bubble/

In the 70s just as US domestic oil production peaked Nixon made some unusual but very interesting moves.

  • Opened China for trade
  • Established the EPA
  • Created a Petro-Dollar deal with Saudi’s
  • Took the Dollar off Gold

I have a very difficult time believing that he, or his cabinet, or congress had any clue of the significance of those particular moves. I think that in particular they would not have understood the Limits to Growth reality, since they decided not to give ear to the findings by Meadows and Forester. US wealth had been built on abundant easily accessible energy and mineral resources. The US was the manufacturer to the world up until 1970 not because of innovation but because the world couldn’t compete on price. ( The Battle of Somme was the effective killing machine it was because of the cheap steel rails that had been supplied by the US, these latter became the light gauge system in the UK ) No other country had the combination of resources at the volumes that the US had. As these became depleted it hampered growth because of affordability. Had it only been a matter of raising the price to meet increased cost of production why didn’t that happen? Affordability is the real driver of growth not supply and demand.

By opening China it gave the US access to offshore its energy intensive industries like steel production, and mining. As well as labor intensive industries like clothing. ( A population living on rice is far less costly in energy terms then one living on hamburgers) Establishing the EPA created additional pressure to move manufacturing elsewhere. The suspension of Dollar-Gold convertibility was a necessity as there wasn’t enough gold to cover the dollars in circulation. It also hampered the ability to create currency. The risk was that dollar demand would collapse but that was countered with the Petro-Dollar arraignment effectively giving the currency a place to go rather than returning to the US to be inflated away. That move calmed the markets, because they felt that at least their dollars could now be converted to oil, which is of higher value than Gold.

Saddam Hussein, and Qaddafi threatened the stability of that system. Saddam had boycotted sales of crude to the US in 2002 and started selling his oil in Euros. For 30 days he stopped all exports in a show of force that he had control of their national petroleum system. What he didn’t understand was he was threatening to limit access to what the US needs most, energy and resources. The war was the answer to that threat. Now Iraqi oil is safely in the control of the international oil majors. Qaddafi had made a similar error since his interest wasn’t to allow the state owned system to be controlled by the oil majors. He also threatened the the Petro-Dollar by creating a competing gold currency that was being used in Africa. The French were particularly at risk as it was replacing the Franc still in use in there former colonies.

If we look closely at NAFTA we see that much of it revolves around access to resources. In exchange for easier economic trade with the US, both Canada and Mexico have agreed to unlimited access to their oil and other resources. When the USSR fell we saw the same pattern. Anglo-US corporations rushed in to gain access to whatever resources they could. Putin the patriot didn’t play ball like Yeltsin. So now he is vilified. Canada and Mexico have peaked in oil production, and now NAFTA is at risk. The UK joined the EU just as it had oil to sell and promptly left when it didn’t.

What we see is a common pattern that is larger then any political system.

Capitalism is a dissipative system out of equilibrium, as all dissipative system are. Like hurricanes Capitalism requires energy input to exist, anything that threatens that will collapse the system. It must grow or die. Within the structure, like hurricanes, there can be self organized subsystems. Tornado’s, Micro-bursts, and other elements that feed off the core. With Capitalism these are corporations and governments. In order for the core to survive the entire system must grow in aggregate. As the net energy driving the system declines the structure weakens, like a hurricane on land or cold water.

Not only is it impossible to return to a local agricultural existence. It is also impossible to decouple the elements of the system. We see that with Trump. His platform was isolation, and now its war. He has no choice he’ll make similar moves as Nixon did, but it can’t work because there is no more sweet spots to exploit.

Just as the shale play is a high cost desperate act of a dying industry. (Shale was well know in the 70s but as uneconomical as it remains today) The US will attempt to turn back time with it’s military machine as it has in the past. The problem is they can’t return affordability so the system will simply grind to a halt.

I guess Adam Smith was right about an Invisible Hand.

 

Without energy to drive real growth all you have left is moving money around. I think most mistake the symptom for the cause. The lax regulations are needed to increase debt which increases money supply. So strangely the corruption is part of the system.

For example it has been documented that the primary money laundering economies are US and U.K. So for all their show as the bastions of freedom and democracy the reality is they benefit from corrupt dictators that stuff their ill gotten gains in the western banking and real estate system.

With Trump it’s just irrelevant he’s neither good or bad. He is no different then any other elected president. He is limited to the resources at his disposal and won’t accomplish anything beyond that. Basically a symptom not a cause.

The Appolo success if we so call it really needs to be considered in context. If you compare the energy production of the US with the USSR it becomes clear that technology wasn’t the key to the space race. In actuality the Soviet rocket engines were 20% more efficient and more powerful. They dared to pipe oxygen rich exhaust from the turbos into the primary engine. But it was done because of necessity they couldn’t afford to waste the fuel. It also constrained their ability to test run the engines. Instead they choose to test them at launch.

The arrow all points in the same direction. Without the resources that the US had access to the USSR could not compete. But it had nothing to do with technology because they were winners with technology.

AK 47 is another example.

I sum it up this way. If you have wood you cook with wood. If you have coal you cook with coal. If you have oil you cook with oil. If you have gas you cook with gas. If you have a lot of it you have trains, planes, and automobiles. I might add rockets. With a little of it you cook.

Technology is a function of abundance not the cause of it.

It’s interesting to note the Roman Empire grew in wealth through military conquest. Then it started developing schools of higher learning in imitation of the Greeks.

Education has never preceded empire. So the thought that education or technology are the source of wealth is false. It has always been resources. It will always be. So in that regard it is no coincidence that the US military is larger then the next 10 militaries combined. So the military industrial complex was also a necessity.

Ironically the competitive economic system, communism thought that they could only find success within a highly educated society. Lenin targeted Germany for that reason. But educated people make poor soldiers. Ignorant religious zealots make far better soldiers. Which system promoted religious freedom and zealotry? For God and Country. God save the Queen. In God we trust. One nation under God.

So in many places Americans are hated because of their ignorance. But perhaps their ignorance has been their strength all along. In this regard we might want to watch closely the current US administration.

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

By Richard Heinberg: Energy and Authoritarianism

Arab Spring, Greece, Brexit, Trump, Venezuela, and many more to follow.

Pay attention to what our leaders and experts say. Not one has a clue what is going on.

Hidden from view = No Clue = Denial

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-09-26/energy-and-authoritarianism/

 

It is highly likely that, as events unfold, the causal criticality of energy decline will be hidden from the view of most observers, whose attention will be fixed instead on shocking but comparatively superficial and secondary political and social events. A more widespread understanding of the role of energy in society, and of the likely limits to future energy supplies, could be extremely beneficial in helping the general populace adapt to scarcity and avoid needless scapegoating and violence. Perhaps this essay can help in some small way to deepen that understanding.

 

One important wild card is the role of debt: it enables us to consume now while promising to pay later. Debt can therefore push consumption forward in time and (for a while, at least) make up for declining energy productivity. It would appear that the “fracking” boom of the past decade, which probably delayed the world oil production peak by about a decade, depended on the power of debt. But when debt defaults cascade, an economy may decline much faster than would otherwise be the case (default-led financial crashes have occurred repeatedly in modern history). And debt defaults can cripple the financial and thus the economic system of a nation with plenty of energy resources (as happened in the U.S. in the 1930s).

 

By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl

Vaclav Smil is an intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable expert on a wide range of scientific and social topics related to energy. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a respected author of many books.

In this September 2015 talk at McGill University he touches on many important topics including:

  • We are a fossil fuel civilization and will remain so for a long time.
  • Over the last 25 years we have reduced our dependence on fossil energy by only 3%.
  • Power density is critical when comparing energy alternatives.
  • Renewable energy is not renewable and does not have the density to replace fossil energy.
  • Green products are not green.
  • Nuclear energy is dead. What’s left is being developed in the wrong places.
  • CO2 capture is not a solution for climate change.
  • Developed countries do not use energy rationally. Canada (and the U.S.) are the worst offenders in the world.
  • Food and energy have never been cheaper and we should expect to pay a lot more in the future.
  • The solution to reducing waste and energy consumption is higher prices.
  • Innovation is an overvalued and exaggerated topic. All of the critical technologies civilization depends on were invented over 100 years ago.
  • There are more important issues to worry about than peak oil including water scarcity, money printing, low interest rates, and high youth unemployment.
  • Most big events in history were unexpected. We can expect surprises in the future.
  • Reasons for hope include the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, and the fact that we can have comfortable lives at a much lower level of consumption.

I agree with almost all of Smil’s points except:

  • Smil believes we are unable to accurately predict the effect of rising CO2 and therefore he is not worried about climate change. I’ve done enough reading of climate science to be confident we should be very worried.  While we are not able to precisely predict the outcome, the probable outcome of our current path ranges from dangerous to catastrophic.
  • Smil believes that with fracking and other technology improvements we will have plentiful oil for at least a hundred years. I think we will have energy shortages within 10 years. Our different views are probably rooted in different assumptions about the link between energy and the economy. Smil thinks any oil shortages will increase the price of oil thus enabling new and more expensive sources. I think rising oil prices will reduce worker productivity and incomes which will make more expensive oil unaffordable and therefore supply will reduce in an escalating feedback loop as inexpensive oil is depleted. I also think that oil depletion and consequent rising production costs are the main cause of rising debt, money printing, and low interest rates that Smil worries about.

This lecture is a must watch for people seeking to understand the issues that really matter to our experiment with civilization.

video review: Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil by Richard Smith

crude-the-incredible-journey-of-oil

I’ve watched a lot of good documentaries but this one produced in 2007 by Richard Smith for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is among the very best.

http://www.abc.net.au/science/crude/resources/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1551617/

Usually, the more important a non-fiction work is, the more scientific disciplines the author integrates into a coherent story. In this case, Richard Smith does a remarkable job of weaving geology, chemistry, biology, thermodynamics, climate, history, and economics into a fascinating story that follows a carbon atom as it moves about the planet over the last 200 million years.

I often marvel at, and wonder how we were blessed with such a large quantity of crude oil which we have used to build an amazing civilization. This documentary does a very nice job of explaining how crude oil was formed 160 million years ago on a hot greenhouse planet with near dead and toxic oceans. The photosynthetic bacteria that converted CO2 and sunlight into the carbohydrates that later became crude oil acted to remove CO2 from the atmosphere thus cooling the planet and returning it to a healthy environment for complex oxygen breathing life like ourselves.

Humans are now reversing this process by burning fossil carbon and returning the CO2 to the atmosphere which may return the planet to an environment incompatible with civilization. Unless, ironically, we run out of oil first, which will also cause our civilization to collapse.

What’s different this time is that humans are doing in a hundred years what took geology thousands or millions of years in the past. This speed makes the outcome more difficult to predict but common sense suggests it’s unlikely to be good.

Given that 10 years have elapsed since the documentary was produced it’s a credit to Richard Smith that it’s still relevant and accurate, although it’s a concern to see how far we have unraveled in 10 years with melting poles, record temperatures, stalled economic growth, zero interest rates, money printing, failing oil companies, and global social unrest.

It’s also a concern, but expected in light of Varki’s theory on denial, that we collectively have not yet acknowledged our predicament, let alone taken any steps to make the future less bad.

Highly recommended!

If you’d like a higher quality version than what’s available on YouTube it has been recently ripped in HD and available as a torrent here.

 

 

By Kurt Andersen: How America Lost Its Mind (On the History of Denial)

This is an interesting (and lengthy) article on the recent history of denial of reality.

In summary, we’ve always denied reality, but lately it’s getting much worse.

I observe that the author does not understand the genetic basis of denial and therefore is like a fish explaining the history of swimming without being aware of water.

And, of course, after pages of facts showing the trend and likely outcomes are very bad, the author supports Varki’s theory by ending on an optimistic note that everything will work out ok in the end.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/how-america-lost-its-mind/534231/

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Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.

 

Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

And this was all true before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.

 

How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.

 

People see our shocking Trump moment—this post-truth, “alternative facts” moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history.

 

The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In 2008, three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in 2012 it was down to a third, and then in 2016, just one did. That one, Jeb Bush, was careful to say that evolutionary biology was only his truth, that “it does not need to be in the curriculum” of public schools, and that if it is, it could be accompanied by creationist teaching. A two-to-one majority of Republicans say they “support establishing Christianity as the national religion,” according to Public Policy Polling.

 

Trump doesn’t like experts, because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.

 

Not all lies are fantasies and not all fantasies are lies; people who believe untrue things can pass lie-detector tests. For instance, Trump probably really believed that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years,” the total falsehood he told leaders of the National Sheriffs’ Association at the White House in early February. The fact-checking website PolitiFact looked at more than 400 of his statements as a candidate and as president and found that almost 50 percent were false and another 20 percent were mostly false.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

Here is this year’s Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.

You know you are in trouble when…

Bizarro.com Our Extended Forecast

 

Examples of denial are both profound and unacknowledged.

The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth

The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption

Reduced CO2 emissions from an economic collapse caused by low-cost oil depletion is not sufficient to prevent civilization collapse from climate change caused by previously emitted CO2.

All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity

Most citizens have no idea how fortunate they are to be alive at this point in history: Blindspots and Superheroes

Despite wildly different beliefs about our predicament, there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: I don’t want to change my behavior

The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, peak oil, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline 

Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: declining energy surplus a.k.a. energy extraction cost + debt

Citizens believe the exact opposite of reality: technology creates wealth and energy rather than energy creates wealth and technology

Citizens misunderstand the root cause of social unrest and wars because the media presents these conflicts as political or economic problems and ignores their underlying forces: biophysical constraints

There is evidence that feedback loops are taking over and causing some problems to go exponential: climate change, CO2 emissions, ice loss, sea level rise, debt

The previous year’s worst case predictions are tending to become this year’s most likely prediction: sea level rise

Actions that improve the long-term worsen the short-term: air pollution masks 0.5C of warming, austerity and debt reduction, renewable energy, population reduction 

The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction

The only possible permanent solution is too slow to avoid the worst problems: population reduction laws

Countries fortunate to have a low birth rate often cancel their good fortune with immigration: Canada

The few people who understand the severity of our problems do not set good examples in their personal lives: leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists

History suggests that the consequence of not voluntarily contracting our economies as non-renewable resources deplete is an unthinkable war, so we don’t think about it: nuclear weapons

The quality of our leaders is declining because those people with high intelligence, wisdom, and integrity do not want to be in charge of our predicament, and because citizens are feeling the impact of overshoot, do not understand what is going on, and are angry: Trump

The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump

The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter

We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil

Low energy prices have led citizens to believe we have a glut of fossil energy when in fact: all types of energy have peaked

We do not discuss or act on economic history research that shows countries always get into serious trouble when they permit an important ratio to exceed a threshold we long passed: debt to GDP

Bankers, the creators of money, do not understand the one thing that creators of money should understand: thermodynamics of wealth

The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists

The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett

The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists

The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities

All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines, and mining machines; plus natural gas for fertilizer

Operating our economy on renewable energy is not renewable or feasible.

People who think the shale revolution will make America prosperous and energy independent ignore one thing: facts and more facts

Intelligent people who understand the climate change threats, like James Hansen and Bill Gates, and who want business as usual to continue, know that nuclear energy is the only option, but they ignore a problem: peak uranium

If climate deniers continue to win elections and try to maintain the existing electric grid they’ll find that strategy may not work for long: peak coal

A key component of our infrastructure appears durable but is not: reinforced concrete

Citizens most vulnerable to a fragile global supply chain with only a few days of inventory experience the strongest illusion of abundance and security: inhabitants of large cities

The “green” revolution, which increased food production to enable 7+ billion humans, was and is entirely dependent on fossil energy, and has long-term consequences that will make a return to traditional agriculture very difficult.

Most citizens are not even vaguely aware of the invention that enabled their existence and created about 50% of the nitrogen in their bodies: Haber-Bosch conversion of natural gas to fertilizer

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without understanding the source of all that they cherish in modern civilization: fossil energy

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without realizing that many fossil energy companies are going bankrupt: ExxonMobil

A solution frequently advocated makes things worse by accelerating growth and decreasing system resilience: efficiency

The best solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere is being harmed by the same activity that creates CO2: planting more trees which are then injured or killed by ground level ozone

All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)

We have not acted to prevent a predictable and very dangerous side effect of trying to maintain business-as-usual with low interest rates: increasing wealth gap

We still enjoy historically vast surplus wealth that could be deployed to improve our future lives but we are squandering it: military, airports, highways, new cars, high rises, etc.

Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars

The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet

Many people are hurting and lashing out in anger because they do not understand the cause of their pain: Brexit, Trump, Syria, Venezuela, etc.

The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news

Few people study or heed the best predictor of the future: history

The majority of citizens share a common characteristic that makes the election of an intelligent and wise leader empowered to do the right thing unlikely: wacky beliefs

None of our schools teach skills useful and relevant to our future: growing food and other forms of lower complexity life skills

The thing that enabled the evolution of our high intelligence and its ability to understand and act on problems is the same thing that causes our problems and prevents us from acting on them: denial of reality

The theory that best explains our existence and our self-destructive behavior is ignored by everyone, including those people seeking to understand our problems: Varki and Brower’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory

Readers are encouraged to submit additions to the list.

A good place to go next is What would a wise society do?

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.