The first thing I should say is that the word collapse freaks me out. I don’t use it often, for fear of sounding like an unhinged alarmist. Surely, respectable scientists should want nothing to do with it.
The second thing is that I don’t harbor any secret pleasure in imagining catastrophic failure of the human endeavor. It depresses me, frightens me, angers me, frustrates me, confuses me, and makes my wife crabby.
What keeps pulling me back to it—despite my innate repulsion—is not only credible elements of risk that I will get to in this post, but also that I think it’s too important to tolerate our natural tendency to hide from the prospect. Ironically, doing so only raises the odds of that ill fate: mitigation requires direct acknowledgment. Failure to speak openly and honestly about the less-than-remote possibility of collapse is not in our best interest, ultimately.
So let’s grit our teeth and confront the collapse monster. What conditions make it at once likely and off most people’s radars?
It is a heavy lift for one blog post to do a complete job in motivating collapse as a realistic outcome of the human enterprise. Any one argument can be picked at, but the totality should be considered. This is a long post, so buckle up.
Some time ago, the Chevy Volt attracted my attention. I think the plug-in hybrid concept hits the sweet spot for American drivers, and the Volt’s 35–40 mile electric-only range seemed to be the perfect number. A pure electric vehicle (EV) would not permit my wife’s periodic work-related jaunt to Pasadena, so any battery-powered solution for us must be of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) variety. The problem, ultimately, was the high price tag (and the hump in the middle of the back seat occupied by the battery). Although I don’t self-identify as being in the “upper class,” our income edges us into the top quintile in the U.S. So for us to decide that the Volt costs too much—despite genuine enthusiasm—seemed to spell trouble (indeed, the average income of Volt owners was claimed to be $175,000). My conclusion was that electric/plug-in cars are out of reach, and could well remain so.
In April of this year, I became aware of the Ford plug-in, called the C-Max Energi (yes, with an “i” at the end!). The C-Max Energi has a 21 mile electric-only range, and gets an EPA rating of 43 miles per gallon (2.3 gal/100 mi; or 5.4 L/100 km). The price tag is approximately $6k cheaper than the Volt, and the back seat passed my wife’s approval. Nonetheless, after carefully considering the C-Max Energi as a replacement for our increasingly ailing car, we decided against springing for one: still too expensive. I was all set to write a Do the Math post to the tune of “Almost bit on a PHEV again.”
But the fact remained that our 11-year old 28 MPG car (bought used) has been costing us a fair bit in maintenance, its reliability increasingly dubious. Replacement loomed. Motivated by an upcoming long-haul road trip, we explored options again, looking at hybrids and the C-Max Energi. In the end—aided by a federal tax credit, a California rebate, and an unfathomably good offer that together knocked $9k off the MSRP—we drove an Energi off the lot under battery power.
It turns out that:
the lifetime cost for the PHEV is still higher than other options we considered, but not prohibitively so given credits, rebates, and discounts;
the CO2 emissions are cut in half in electric mode (considering upstream electricity production in our region);
batteries still stink compared to liquid fuel, and likely always will.
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.)
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.
Having looked at the major alternatives to fossil fuel energy production (summarized here), we come away with the general sentiment that the easy days of cheap energy are not evidently carried forward into a future without fossil fuels. That’s right, fossil fuels will be dead and gone. Is it time to pile them on the cart to be hauled away?
In the slapdash scoring scheme I employed in the alternative energy matrix, the best performers racked up 5 points, whereas by the same criteria, our traditional fossil fuels typically achieved the near-perfect score of 8/10. The only consistent failing is in the abundance measure, which is ultimately what brings us all together here at Do the Math. Fossil fuels are presently used in abundance—85% of current energy use—but this is a short-term prospect, ending within the century. The first effects of decline may be close at hand. Do I hear talk of nursing homes?
The gulf between fossil fuels and their alternatives tends to be rather large in terms of utility, energy density, practicality, ease of use, versatility, energy return on energy invested, etc. In other words, we do not merrily step off the fossil fuel ride onto the next one by “just” allowing the transition to happen. The alternatives come at a cost, and we will miss the golden days of fossil fuels. But wait…what’s that murmur? Not dead yet?
You may have heard about the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of our combustion of fossil fuels. If we wanted to sweep the excess CO2 out of the air, what would it take? How much is there? Where would we put it? In this post, we will put the numbers in perspective and briefly examine a few of the possibilities for storage.
Today, we’re going to make the world less comfortable, in two easy steps that each of you can do at home. Step 1 shows how easy it is to account for the carbon dioxide excess in the atmosphere based on our cumulative use of fossil fuels. Step 2 bypasses intricacies of thermal radiation to put an approximate scale on the amount of heating we would expect the excess CO2 to produce. Serves 7 billion.
Climate Change in Context
I view climate change as a genuine challenge to the stability of our coexistence with the planet. But it is not my primary concern. A far more dangerous threat to the human endeavor is, in my mind, our reliance on finite resources and the difficulty our economic systems will have coping with a decline in the availability of cheap energy. That said, the issues are closely linked—through fossil fuels—and both benefit from a drive toward renewable resources. Continue reading →