The numbers had already left impressionable marks on me, and as they swirled in my head for some months I certainly had a sense for the urgent warning they wanted me to hear. But it wasn’t until I rubbed the numbers together that the message really rang out. Then plotting the historical evolution shook me anew. I was staring at the ecological cliff we appear to be driving over.
Let’s build the punchline from a few facts that were already rattling around in my head. Human population, at 8 billion today, was 1 billion around the year 1800. At a global average human mass of 50 kg, that’s 400 Mt (megatons) of humans—matching the 390 Mt I had seen in a superb graphic from Greenspoon et al., shown later in this post. This same graphic shows wild land mammal mass at 20 Mt today. I also knew that wild land mammal mass was about 4 times higher in 1800, and 5 times higher 10,000 years ago.
Put these together, and what do you get? In 1800, every human on the planet had a corresponding 80 kg of mammal mass in the wild. Wild land mammals outweighed humans in an 80:50 ratio.
Today, each human on the planet can only point to 2.5 kg of wild mammal mass as their “own.”
Let that sink in. You only have 2.5 kg (less than 6 pounds) of wild mammal out there somewhere. A single pet cat or dog generally weighs more. Not that long ago, it was more than you could carry. Now, it seems like hardly anything! I especially fear the implications for mammals should global food distribution be severely crippled.
The graph is even more alarming to me.
Mass ratio (left axis) and total mass (right axis) of wild land mammal mass per person on the planet. Note the logarithmic vertical axis, as is necessary to show the wide range of values.
The vertical scale is logarithmic in order to show the enormous range involved. The precipitous drop in the present age is staggering. How can we look at this and think that we’re heading in the right direction? That’s modernity for you, folks.
You may be familiar with the term “hockey stick curve,” used describe a trend that has been flat/stable for a very long time, but shoots up at the end of the series in dramatic fashion, resembling the shape of a hockey stick. Hockey can be a violent sport, and it’s easy to get hurt by even one well-aimed swing. Today’s world is being battered from all sides by countless hockey sticks. Mostly, they seem to be targeting Earth’s critters, who are getting bludgeoned unsparingly. But in the end, we’re only harming ourselves.
This post is structured as a gauntlet of hockey stick curves that may leave the reader feeling a bit bruised. Depending on what’s being plotted, many of the graphs shoot up like an exponential, but a few are careening downwards. A theme emerges: the “bads” go up, and the “goods” go down—and not by coincidence.
A little over two years ago, my wife and I entered a new phase of life in two respects: we got three chickens, and we got a plug-in hybrid vehicle. They have more in common than I would have thought. We see flagging performance in both (egg-laying and battery capacity). We knew the chickens would only last/live for something like 4 years. It’s looking like the EV battery may be similar! Both are happiest pipkining around: plodding about at a leisurely pace. And perhaps like some children, they both disappoint us at times, but we are fond of them all the same. They’re good girls, we tell ourselves.
It may come as no surprise to you that I’ve been collecting data (yes, on both “experiments,” but I’ll spare you egg masses and laying schedules). It takes a little time to do, but recording/resetting the trip meter for every charge, noting charge time and energy delivered, and convincing the wife to go along does pay off, as you will hopefully be convinced.
From the data, I see that the battery capacity is at about 85% of its original condition. While extrapolation is highly risky, it would seem that I can expect zero capacity on the scale of six years, based on its accelerating decline. At this point, we have put about 500 full-cycle-equivalent charges on the battery in about 700 charge events (just shy of one per day, typically about 70% depth). So perhaps it’s not surprising: few batteries can withstand more than 1–2000 charge cycles before giving out.
I started Do the Math in 2011 as a way to reach a larger audience than a handful of students every year or two in an energy course at UCSD. I had (and still have) deep concerns about the assumptions we make as a society based on our fossil fuel trajectory over the last century or so. Trying to steer policy from the top seemed a losing proposition: feckless politicians hew to their constituents’ desires via a mechanism we call democracy, so why not try to get people on board directly?
I never imagined creating a blog that would get millions of pageviews, although this by itself falls well short of having an impact on a grand scale. But I figured I owed it to myself to reach as many as I might. What I have found is that a select few seem to share my concerns. And some vocal contributors to comments strongly disagree that we need to worry (why then make the seemingly wasted effort to respond to—in their eyes—doomsaying kooks if in fact we need not be concerned?). But most people simply don’t care enough to tune in. They’ve learned to ignore prognostications of any flavor, perhaps. Lately, even fewer people are entertaining ideas of resource limits owing to increased global oil production (led almost entirely by U.S. shale oil) and a recovering economy.
But I think there is something more fundamental going on here. I think we’re dealing with personality traits cooked into human nature. Are we capable of mitigating a far-off potential calamity via proactive efforts decades ahead of a putative crisis? In this post, I’ll use some survey data suggesting that we may be in trouble.
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?
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.
I will ultimately be sharing the results, but the habitual readers of the aforementioned sites are perhaps not representative of the population at large.
Thus I would like your help in pushing this out to a broader population. See if you can get your friends and family members to take the survey, and perhaps even pass the link on to their friends, etc. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, so do not know what to expect. But let’s give it a try, yeah?
One day, sitting around with a group of undergraduate physics students, I listened as one made the bold statement: “If it can be imagined, it can be done.” The others nodded in agreement. It sounded like wisdom. It took me all of two seconds to violate this dictum as I imagined myself jumping straight up to the Moon. I may have asked if the student really thought what he said was true, but resisted the impulse to turn it into an impromptu teaching moment. Instead, I wondered how pervasive this attitude was among physics students and faculty. So I put together a survey and in this post report what I found. The overriding theme: experts say don’t count on a Star Trek future. Ever.
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.
My wife calls it spying. I call it data. To-may-to, To-mah-to. It’s true that I know what she’s been up to (electrically) while I’m away. And it’s true that I can access this information anywhere in the world that has an internet connection. But domestic surveillance is not my aim (cameras and microphones would be far more informative in that regard). I just care about the energy angle.
In this post, I will present example results from monitoring and recording my home electricity use, demonstrating the marvelous secret world it reveals. My interest lies in putting numbers on my own behaviors, and in characterizing the appliances in my house. Some of this rubs off on my wife, and some of it rubs her the wrong way. But as I explained in an earlier post, I kept a note she once wrote that said: “Okay, TED’s pretty cool.”
Who is TED? TED is The Energy Detective. That same earlier post told the story of TED’s tortured journey to our home—a tale of excitement, rejection, and ultimate acceptance.
This post is not meant to convey anything deep and meaningful about the energy challenges we face, except for the fact that those challenges provided a background motivation for me to explore and monitor energy data in my home (it should be obvious by now that I’m a data-holic). Rather, I will simply showcase a number of data captures from TED so you can see for yourself the interesting hidden behaviors of appliances, and develop some intuition about how much of a toll various devices take.