The Real Population Problem

[An expanded treatment of some of this material appears in Chapter 3 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.

The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.

Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?

So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth.

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Crippling Intellects

[Relevant reflections on this topic appear in Appendix section D.6 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

Star Trek brainiac

People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.

A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.

Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.

One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.

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When Science is a Conveyor of Bad News

Science is a phenomenal institution. Sometimes I can’t believe we created this construct that works so incredibly well. It manages to convert human imperfections into a remarkably robust machine that has aided our growth juggernaut. Yet science seeks truth, and sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear. How will we respond? Will we kill the messenger and penalize the scientific institution for what is bound to be an increasing barrage of bad news this century as Earth fills beyond capacity?

I think for many people in our society, personal contact with science is limited to science classes in school or perhaps the dreaded science fair—or maybe as adults watching shows like Nova or tuning in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.

So let me take a moment to explain science as I have come to understand it. (You can skip if you already have a firm grip.)

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The Energy-Water Nexus

The principal challenge of this century, in my view, will be adapting to a life without abundant, cheap fossil fuels. It has been the lifeblood of our society, and turns out to have some really fantastic qualities. The jury is still out as to whether we will develop suitable/affordable replacements. But additional challenges loom in parallel. Water is very likely to be one of them, which is especially pertinent in my region. For true believers in the universality of substitution, let me suggest two things. First, come to terms with the finite compactness of the periodic table. Second, try substituting delicious H2O with H2O2. It has an extra oxygen atom, and we all know that oxygen is a vital requisite for life, so our new product will be super-easy to market. Never-mind the hydrogen peroxide taste, and the death that will surely visit anyone foolish enough to adopt this substitution. Sometimes we’re just stuck without substitutes.

Substitution silliness aside, water and energy are intimately related in what has been termed the Energy-Water Nexus (see for example the article by Michael Webber from this conference compilation; sorry about the paywall). We’ll explore aspects of this connection here, touching on pumping water, use of water for the production and extraction of energy, and desalination. As glaciers and snowpack melt and drought becomes more common in the face of climate change, our water practices will need to be modified, hitting energy right in the nexus.

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Rocking the AC

When it comes up in casual conversation that I do not generally heat or cool my house, people either move to another seat or look at me with some mixture of admiration and disbelief. When non-Californians then find out that I live in San Diego, they might huff or spew, which often involves some embarrassing projectile escaping their mouth. But the locals are more consistently impressed—more so by my forsaking heat than AC (San Diego has very mild summers by U.S. standards). This summer, I turned on the AC for the first time since we bought the house three years ago. All in the name of science! I was blown away. Here is what I learned.

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Ruthless Extrapolation

We humans owe much of our success to our ability to recognize patterns and extrapolate trends to anticipate a future state. My cats, on the other hand, will watch a tossed toy mouse travel toward them across the room—getting ever-bigger—all the way until it smacks them between the eyes (no, they’re not strapped down—I’m not that sort of scientist). But far beyond an ability to avoid projectiles, our ancestors were able to perceive and react to changes in local food and water supplies, herd movements, seasonal cues, etc. Yet this fine tool can be over-used, and I see a lot of what I call ruthless extrapolation. In almost every case, extrapolation works until it doesn’t.  When the fundamental rules of the game change, watch out!

As with many aspects of human behavior, some of the finest commentary on the matter is served up by The Simpsons. In one episode, Lisa Simpson is taken to the orthodontist to evaluate whether or not she needs braces. The “doctor” runs a simulation based on current growth rates, producing an alarming graphic of teeth gone wild.

Image obtained from saucesome.net

Marge shrieks and is ready to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter against this cruel fate. Extrapolation can, of course, be used to argue both for impending doom or future prosperity—sometimes based on the same data. I started this blog with an extrapolative foil to demonstrate the insanity of continued physical growth, in fact. A tangential follow-up illustrated the hopelessness of differentiating a steady-state energy future from an energy crash using current data (although a continued exponential rise is already a poor fit).

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Chris Martenson Podcast

I’ll cheat on my bi-weekly posting plan and slip in this podcast conversation between Chris Martenson and myself, covering many of the topics I have written about in the last year.

If you don’t have 45 minutes, and are a faster reader than I am, a transcript is also available—mercifully leaving out many utterances of “um” and “you know” (which is all I seem to hear when I listen to a recording of myself).  The original source and surrounding intro/write-up can be found on the Chris Martenson website.

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My Neighbors Use Too Much Energy

[An updated treatment of some of this material appears in Chapter 20 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

From www.christmasvacationcollectibles.com

I have described in a series of posts the efforts my wife and I have made to reduce our energy footprint on a number of fronts. The motivation stems from our perception that the path we are on is not sustainable. Our response has been to pluck the low-hanging fruit, demonstrating to ourselves that we can live a “normal” life using far less energy than we once did. We are by no means gold medalists in this effort, but our savings have nonetheless been substantial. Now we shift the burden off of ourselves, and onto our neighbors. You don’t have to run faster than the bear—just faster than the other guy. In this post, I summarize our savings relative to the national average, add a few more tidbits not previously covered, put the savings in context, and muse about ways to extend the reach of such efforts.

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Flex-Fuel Humans

[An updated treatment of some of this material appears in Chapter 20 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

If you’re one of those humans who actually eats food, like I am, then a non-negligible part of your energy allocation goes into food production. As an approximate rule-of-thumb, each kilocalorie ingested by Americans consumes 10 kilocalories of fossil fuel energy to plant, fertilize, harvest, transport, and prepare. The energy investment can easily exceed a person’s household energy usage—as is the case for me. But much like household energy, we control what we stick in our mouths, and can make energy-conscious choices that result in substantial reductions of energy consumption. I now call myself a flexitarian, a term acknowledging that my body is a flex-fuel vehicle, but also that I need not be rigid about my food choices in order to still make a substantial impact on the energy front.

An earlier post on how many miles per gallon a human gets while walking or biking touched on the fact that fossil fuels undergird our food supply. As a result, walking to the grocery store effectively uses as much fossil fuel as would a typical sedan. The lesson is not to walk less, but to change that 10:1 ratio for the better by eating more smartly. Once upon a time, we put less than one kilocalorie of energy into food production per kilocalorie obtained (or else we and our draft animals would have starved to death). So the 10:1 ratio is not at all inescapable, and depends strongly on the foods we choose to eat.

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Easing Off the Gas

The Do the Math blog series has built the case that physical growth cannot continue indefinitely; that fossil fuel availability will commence a decline this century—starting with petroleum; that alternative energy schemes constitute imperfect substitutes for fossil fuels; and has concluded that a very smart strategy for us to adopt is to slow down while we sort out the biggest transition humans have ever faced. The idea is to relieve pressure on the system, avoid the Energy Trap, and give ourselves the best possible chance for a successful transformation to a stable future. Since building this case, I have described substantial adaptations in our home energy use, but have not yet addressed the one that bears most directly on the immediate problem: transportation and liquid fuels. Let’s take a look at what can be done here.

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