Can Modernity Last?

Image by Daniel Borker from Pixabay

Do the Math started out with a pair of posts about limits to growth. Galactic-Scale Energy pointed out the nonsense that results from continued growth in energy use, and Can Economic Growth Last? turned to the economic implications of stalled physical growth. This combination of topics later appeared in a dinner conversation between myself and an economist. The same pairing also evolved into chapters 1 and 2 of the textbook I wrote in 2021. And if that wasn’t enough, I published a paper in Nature Physics called Limits to Economic Growth based on the same theme. When I do podcast interviews, the hosts often want to step through this (powerful) logic.

Perhaps the result has me sounding like a broken record. It feels to me like the song “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fans will not allow the band to perform a concert without playing this classic hit. There’d be riots. I’ve had a lot to say following those two posts in 2011, and have especially taken a profound turn in the last few years. But the point remains central to our modern predicament, and until we all have it firmly planted in our heads that growth is a very temporary phase that must end, I guess I could do worse than repeating myself to new audiences—and to veterans holding up lighters.

In this post, I echo the bedrock question of whether economic growth can last with the question of whether modernity can last (see the previous post for definition and possible inevitability). Okay, nothing lasts. The whole universe is only 13.8 billion years old. The sun and the earth are only about 4.5 billion years old, and will be around in recognizable form for a comparable time into the future. Species typically hang around for millions of years. Homo sapiens is a few hundred-thousand years old. Depending on definitions, modernity has been around for at least a century or as long as 10,000 years—brief in either case, in the scheme of things. Nothing is forever, but how long might modernity last?

Whether modernity can last is perhaps a more important question than whether growth can last. The fact that growth can’t last is shocking enough for many. But it still allows mental space for maintaining our current way of life—just no longer growing. But is that even possible? I can’t be as confident in my answer as I am for growth, since the question of growth comes down to incontrovertible concepts and, well, math. Still, I strongly suspect the answer to this new question is “no” as well, and in this post I’ll expound on my misgivings.

[Note: I had another post in 2021 enumerating reasons to worry about collapse, which is a relevant but—I would say—less enlightened precursor to this piece. Since then, I have become aware of the important role of human supremacy, the materials difficulties associated with renewable energy, the crushing numbers on loss of biodiversity, and have released my anxious grasp on modernity—having better appreciated the more-than-human world and our role within the greater community of life.]

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Fusion Foolery

National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab

Great. The fusion hype is bad enough already. Now its resurgence is going to interrupt the series of posts I’m in the middle of publishing in order for this post to be “timely.”

The first (and much bigger) round of breathless excitement came in December 2022 when the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) announced a (legitimate) breakthrough in achieving fusion: more energy came out of the target than laser energy injected.

At the time, I brushed it off without even reading any articles because I already knew about the NIF’s purpose and limitations, and a few headlines told me everything I needed to know. Who cares how much laser energy went in: how much energy went into creating the laser energy? The laser I used for lunar ranging took 5 kW from the wall plug and delivered 2 W of laser power for a dismal 0.04% efficiency. Such is the cost for shaping ultra-brief pulses: lots of energy is thrown away. The headlines were clearly overblown.

Enough students in my energy class in Spring 2023 asked about the fusion breakthrough (doesn’t that mean we’re done?) that I dug into the details. Even so, I still deemed it unworthy of writing up as a post. But a few days ago, my friend asked me if I was excited about the recent fusion news. I hadn’t heard a peep, but after searching I found a new round of articles based on a second “net gain” laser shot and realized I probably ought to put out a quantitative post on the matter, reminiscent of my blogging origins.

In the end, the NIF fusion accomplishment might be called a stunt.  Stunts explore what we can do (often after an insane amount of preparation, practice, and failure), rather than what’s practical.  Stunts hide the pains and present an appearance of ease and grace, but it’s a show.

Quantitatively, it’s as if you spot a slot machine in a casino that looks very promising. You’re dying to play, because it just feels right—mysteriously appealing to your sense of self. It calls to you. You notice that it takes $2 tokens, but you have none. You go to the window to purchase a token, and are shocked to learn that one $2 token costs $400. Not wanting to look like an uninformed fool, you gulp and buy the token. This slot machine had better live up to its promise! You pull the lever, and surprise! You actually do win! You put in a $2 token and the machine makes very happy noises and flashes lots of lights as it spits out…$3 (and some neutrons, oddly). Queue the headlines! Want to play again?  Actually, this wasn’t your first shot: just the first success after years of trying (but hush!).

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Shedding our Fossil Fuel Suit

iron man-esque graphic

From Pixabay (Ramdlon)

Fossil fuels have leveraged human power and ingenuity to a remarkable degree. Their discovery and accelerating utilization utterly transformed lifestyles, achievements, and even how we perceive ourselves as a species.

Yet, one thing we know for certain about fossil fuels is that they are a finite resource on this planet—slowly developed in select locations over hundreds of millions of years and being used about a million times faster than the rate of production. We know that we have already consumed a sizable fraction of the initial inheritance: perhaps now halfway through the irreplaceable allotment of oil. So we know that this phase of the human adventure is a temporary one.

The quintessential graphic for conveying this idea is one I have used many times, because I believe it is the most important plot modern humans could possibly absorb. Human energy use has shot up in the last 150 years, and in the context of fossil fuels will plummet on a similar timescale, leaving—what, exactly?

fossil fuel usage is recent, fast, and will be over soon

The fossil fuel energy explosion that powers our current fireworks show is a momentary phenomenon that will be over in a historically short time.

Over timescales relevant to civilization (which began 10,000 years ago with agriculture and cities), plots of almost anything relating to human activity look like hockey sticks: population, agricultural output, industrial output, mined materials, deforestation, species extinctions, and so on [see this later post]. Many of these certainly correlate to population growth, but the per capita impacts also have shot up, compounding the human footprint to a frightening degree. At this point, humans and their livestock account for 96% of mammal mass on the planet, leaving a mere 4% for all wild animals (half of this from massive whales and other marine mammals). It’s not just a footprint any more: it’s a boot on the throat of the planet, leaving non-human life gasping and silently begging for even a little mercy. Is anybody getting video of this?

Almost all of this explosive impact can be traced to fossil fuels, which I have started visualizing as a suit donned by humans that has given us literal superpowers. What would we be without our fancy suit?

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BBC Questions Indefinite Growth

Theo Leggett of the BBC interviewed me in late January as part of a program asking: “Can the World Get Richer Forever?”  You can listen to the show here.  My part begins about eleven minutes in.

I was also asked to contribute some short text for the write-up (same as first link above), but apparently Theo was unable to get contributions from all participants, so wrote the piece himself.  But here is what I sent him.  I was asked to answer the question:

Can the World Get Richer Forever?

Shame on you for even asking.  Of course not.  At present population levels, we are putting unprecedented pressure on finite resources.  We are conducting a grand-scale, unauthorized experiment on the 4.5 billion-year-old planet.  The fact that we have not hit the bounds in a few generations of outrageous growth should not be taken as evidence for our long-haul prospects.  We live like kings today, on the backs of roughly 100 energy slaves each (human metabolism is 100 Watts, but Americans enjoy 10,000 W of continuous power).  Our richness is very much tied to surplus energy availability, and that so far has been a story of finite fossil fuels.  But even under solar power, we can’t continue our track record of 3% energy growth per year for even several hundred years!  Global physical limits—thermodynamic, energy return on energy invested, finite arable land, water, fisheries, climate change, etc.—are all asserting themselves to remind us that nature doesn’t care about our dreams.  The other point to make is that even if we capped physical growth due to finite resources, we cannot expect to continue getting richer indefinitely.  This would necessarily take the form of non-physical exchanges of utility/worth, but to keep growing these activities would have to eventually utterly dominate the economy—rendering the finite and essential resources effectively free.  And tell me how that makes sense.

 

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Peak What?

[An updated treatment of some of this material appears in Chapter 8 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

separating U.S. influence on global oil production

(you’ll see larger later)

I’ve been maintaining “radio silence” for a while—mostly on account of an overflowing plate and several new new hats I wear. All the while, I have received a steady stream of e-mail thanking me for Do the Math, asking if I’m still alive, and if so: what do I make of the changing oil situation? Do I still think peak oil is a thing?

Let’s start with the big picture view.

I was wrong about everything. Oil is not a finite resource: never was and never will be. We will employ new technologies and innovate our way into essentially perpetual fossil energy. We’ve only scratched the surface in exploration: there are giant deposits (countless new Saudi-Arabia-scale fields) yet to be discovered). The shale oil tells us so—and it won’t stop there. Shale first, then slate, marble, granite: just squeeze the frack out of rocks and we’ll get oil. Meanwhile, whole new continents are being discovered, rich with resources. The most recent was hiding behind Australia. And naturally it doesn’t stop there. We have now discovered thousands of planets just a hop away, most of which are likely to contain fossil fuels of their own. So game over for the resource limits crowd, yeah?

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Plans to Put PV to Pasture?

PV out to pasture?A colleague pointed me toward an article in the LA Times last week, which lays out a plan to remove financial incentives legally bestowed on solar photovoltaics (PV) to the detriment of utility power companies. The plan is spearheaded by the Koch brothers and their political action group, Americans for Prosperity.

In summary, they target two laws that give a big boost to solar: net metering, and renewable mandates. Both impart crucial advantages to solar installations that can change the economics by a large factor.

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Elusive Entropy

partial mixWe’ve all heard it. We think we understand it: entropy is a measure of disorder. Combined with the Second Law of Thermodynamics—that the total entropy of a closed system may never decrease—it seems we have a profound statement that the Universe is destined to become less ordered.

The consequences are unsettling. Sure, the application of energy can reverse entropy locally, but if our society enters an energy-scarce regime, how can we maintain order? It makes intuitive sense: an energy-neglected infrastructure will rust and crumble. And the Second Law stands as a sentinel, unsympathetic to deniers of this fact.

A narrative has developed around this theme that we take in low entropy energy and emit a high entropy wake of waste. That life displays marvelous order—permitted by continuous feeding of this low entropy energy—while death and decay represent higher entropy end states. That we extract low entropy concentrations of materials (ores) from the ground, then disperse the contents around the world in a higher entropy arrangement. The Second Law warns that there is no going back: at least not without substantial infusion of energy.

But wait just a minute! The preceding paragraph is mostly wrong! An unfortunate conflation of the concepts of entropy and disorder has resulted in widespread misunderstanding of what thermodynamic entropy actually means. And if you want to invoke the gravitas of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you’d better make darned sure you’re talking about thermodynamic entropy—whose connection to order is not as strong as you might be led to believe. Entropy can be quantified, in Joules per Kelvin. Let’s build from there.

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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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Blow-by-Blow PV System Efficiency: A Case Study for Storage

A short while back, I described my standalone (off-grid) urban photovoltaic (PV) energy system. At the time, I promised a follow-up piece evaluating the realized efficiency of the system. What was I thinking? The resulting analysis is a lot of work! But it was good for me, and hopefully it will be useful to some of you lot as well. I’ll go ahead and give you the final answer: 62%. So you could peel away now and risk using this number out of context, or you could come with me into the rabbit hole…

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Solar Data Treasure Trove

I have not kept it secret that I’m a fan of solar power. Leaving storage hangups aside for now, the fact that the scale of available power is comfortably gigantic, that perfectly efficient technology exists, that it’s hard-over on the reality axis (vs. fantasy: it’s producing electricity on my roof right now), and that it works well almost everywhere—what’s not to like? Did you trip over that last part? Many do. In this post, we’ll look at just how much solar yield one may expect as a function of location within the U.S.

The ancient Mayans laboriously accumulated a substantial set of observational data on solar illumination across America well ahead of the present need. Okay, it wasn’t actually the ancient Mayans. It was the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), who embarked on a 30-year campaign beginning in 1961, covering 239 locations across the U.S. and associated territories. Imagine this. How many people were even cognizant of solar power in 1961? Yet the forward-thinking scientists at NREL appreciated the value of a solid baseline dataset way back then. This level of foresight seems akin to the Mayans constructing a calendar going all the way to 2012. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a gift from the past.

I have often consulted and enjoyed the product of this work over the years—called the NREL Redbook, or more formally, the Solar Radiation Data Manual for Flat Plate and Concentrating Collectors. But with a snazzy blog post as motivation, I have taken it up a notch and produced a variety of graphical representations of the dataset to explore what it can tell us. Let’s begin the guided tour.

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