Patchwork Design Lab

June 19, 2010

Might as Well Face it You’re Adapted to Oil

There are two phrases I’d like to deconstruct today. Both of them come from the highest levels of government. The first is America is addicted to oil, uttered first by George W Bush in 2006 and echoed by Barack Obama just recently. The second one, uttered first in 1992 by Bush Sr. and later echoed by Dick Cheney, proclaims, “the American Way of Life is not negotiable.”

First let’s look at the addiction comment. Here is a biological definition of addiction:

Addiction ( in psychiatry, a pattern of compulsive drug use characterized by a continued craving for an opiod and the need to use the opiod for effects other than pain relief. Alternately, the state of being given up to some habit, especially strong dependence on a drug. Being abnormally tolerant to and dependent on something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming (especially alcohol or narcotic drugs).

Addiction is a partial adaptation to a foreign substance. I’m somewhat familiar with addiction, though only second hand, because the propensity for substance abuse seems to run in my family. Since I can stake no claim to moral superiority in this matter, I can only conclude that I am biochemically fortunate. The type of substances to which most people tend to become addicted make me feel like hammered dog shit. But I have observed the symptoms at close-hand. And as much as the addict believes that without the craved substance he will surely die or, worse, not die, the need is usually more perceived than real, and after a seemingly endless but actually finite period of time the physical dependence will fade. But there is a point in the process where an addict is likely to say I really need this. My need is not negotiable.

Let’s consider what real need entails. Here is a biological definition of adaptation:

Adaptation (from –
ecology – The adjustment or changes in behavior, physiology, and structure of an organism to become more suited to an environment. According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, organisms adapt to their environment to become better fitted to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation.

In adaptation, function is fitted to systemic processes, and form is fitted to function. Ecosystems arise around energy gradients which generate an ongoing flow. The structure of the system arises in adaptation to both the type and the quantity of flow. Natural systems tend to self-organize in a way that maximizes the rate of flow over time. Everything within the system is integral to this process. Everything an organism does, from its behavior in relationship with other organisms to its very metabolism fits into this regime. If the source gradient changes or is degraded, entire species can die out.

I would argue that modern civilization, the modern global economy, the social systems that humans have created over the millenia are either adapted or in the process of adapting to oil and its cousins natural gas and coal as the primary energy source. Americans are not addicted to oil; they are addicted to the American Way of Life. As is the rest of the world. The American Way of Life, though, is adapted to oil as its primary feedstock. Without a sufficient rate of production and refinement, the American Way of Life will vanish like a puff of smoke; it will collapse like a boneless elephant. Globalization is possible only because of the energy provided by oil and its products and the technologies and infrastructure that have appeared as a result.

You can’t build an “alternative energy” society on a petroleum infrastructure. Not all forms of energy are created equal. Earth receives an estimated 174 petawatts (1.74 X 10exp17) of solar energy a day. That’s a huge quantity of energy, but it’s not in a concentrated form. It is highly dispersed, unavailable (to use thermodynamic lingo) to do work, unless you happen to be a molecule of chlorophyll. Converting sunlight into a form that humans would consider useful takes work. We can use sunlight to heat water in a pipe or to cause gas to expand and drive a turbine to create electricity. We can also use photovoltaics to turn solar energy into electricity. But these technologies depend on energy in a more concentrated form to start with. In our case, the more concentrated form is oil or one of its derivatives. The highly centralized, long-distance, energy intensive lifestyles that we currently “enjoy” are entirely dependent on oil and its evolved infrastructure.

We humans have a huge task before us. We are all destined for rehab. We will have to kick our addiction to the American Way of Life and then create one that is adapted to a new, lower-energy regime. The American Way of Life is not negotiable; it is all but over. We may keep it on life support for a few more years, but, like it or not, it’s already circling the drain.

April 20, 2010

Dreaming a Post-Industrial World


Do a search on the phrase post industrial society and very likely the first hit will be Wikipedia’s definition – a post industrial society is a society in which an economic transition has occurred from an manufacturing based economy to a service based economy, a diffusion of national and global capital, and mass privatization. The prerequisites to this economic shift are the processes of industrialization and liberalization. This economic transition spurs a restructuring in society as a whole.

This, emphatically, is not what I mean when I talk about a post industrial world. Nothing, said King Lear, will come of nothing; speak again. There is no such thing as a service economy. Imagine sending an army of hair dressers and personal trainers, baristas, barristers, and mortgage brokers someplace like Detroit or Braddock, PA to get their economies back on track. This is nothing against baristas, for whom I have nothing but the greatest respect and affection. Service economy is nuance-speak for manufacturing has been shifted to countries where labor is cheap. Then, back home in the service sector, people get to hold down two or three part-time service jobs so they can buy stuff from the off-shore manufacturing sector, whose workers aspire to nothing so much as joining the ranks of the privileged uber-consumers back here in the service sector.

Nothing will come of nothing. People gotta eat and drive and live someplace, and the parts and pieces that go into those things have to be farmed or manufactured somewhere. There is no such thing as an economy built only on service jobs.

Do Something Basic Right

An argument is only as good as its premises. A building is only as good as its foundation. An economy is only as good as its resource base. People who write about sustainability in the mainstream media almost always focus on energy, when they are not obsessing about how to deal with global warming without rocking the status quo. Energy is basic. And it comes in many forms, but not all these forms are of equal quality. Nor are they interchangeable at a low cost.

Your college physics text defines energy as the ability to do work. Then it goes on to treat energy and work as interchangeable terms. Actually, the ability to do work always stems from a difference in potential. There is always a slope or gradient involved. A battery’s charge is equal to the potential difference between its “positive” and “negative” terminals. A furnace can heat a room because its internal temperature is higher than the room’s. You-know-what flows downhill because whatever is at the top is farther from the Earth’s center than what’s at the bottom, a difference in elevation. Project any such difference onto a system of spacial coordinates and you have a gradient. Funny thing about gradients – nature, contrary to popular wisdom, doesn’t have a problem with a vacuum, but nature abhors a gradient. No wonder uneasy rests the head that bears the crown.

Nature expresses this abhorrence in a forceful manner. Anything that is concentrated tends to disperse. A slope tends to erode. Temperature gradients produce heat flow to equalize the disparity. Structures fall apart, and what sticks out gets worn smooth. If the world were indeed flat, as one popular pundit would have it, then nothing at all would happen, ever. The forces that drive these flows do all the work and produce all the transformations in the entire universe. Heat flow can drive mechanical motion can generate electrical charge can motivate motors, and so on. But there is always a loss. And what is it that bears this loss? The structure that supports the difference that set up the gradient that caused the flow suffers some decrease in definition, sharpness, or integrity. Structures that tend to persist tend to divert some of the energy flow to processes that restore their definition, sharpness, or integrity. Or they may spend their capital making copies of themselves.

And what are these structures, you may ask, of which I speak? They are the containers that embody and concentrate the energy. They are the embodied, concentrated energy. They are the geological formations, the trees and lakes, the fruit and leaves, the mineral deposits, the very elements that compose all material objects. They are the resource base.

This is your planet; this is your body. Your resources are finite, as is your time. There is no operating manual. Good luck. Do something basic right.

You Can Never Do Just One Thing

The consequences of our doings always branch and multiply. The physical, chemical, geological, and biological processes that make up the biosphere are inextricably interconnected and interdependent. They convert solar energy into chemical energy and store it as plant structure. They circulate and recycle water, volatile gases, minerals and metabolic wastes. They maintain themselves and their integrity over vast reaches of geological time. They create structure and embody energy using the very processes by which nature attempts to degrade structure and release embodied energy. We have no technology that comes close to any of this in terms of genius, complexity, efficiency, or reliability.

Perhaps instead of fighting with nature we should be trying to learn from her. Given that anything we do produces multiple and largely unforeseen sets of consequences, it follows that if you do something basic right you are likely to get a cascade of benefits beyond what you might foresee. And if you do something basic wrong? Well, read the papers.

Taking all this into consideration, let’s see if we can begin to write our own operating manual, starting with some general guidelines. (Eventually, I plan to get down to specifics; I swear.)

Work With Nature Rather Than Against Her

This is one of the fundamental principles taught in the Permaculture Design Course. What does it mean? First of all, I’d say don’t replicate work, at considerable economic and energetic expense, that nature is already doing or at least quite willing to do for you. Why spend money and nonrenewable resources to fertilize your soil and manage pests when a properly designed agricultural system will continually improve the soil and balance the deprivations of “pests” in the same manner as any other ecosystem? Unnecessary work creates unnecessary waste. There is a reason that a forest doesn’t require fertilizers, weed killers, and pesticides. Don’t fight biological succession, and you won’t need to poison the soil, air, and groundwater in order to eat food that is contaminated with the poisons you used to produce it. Figure out how to plant in such a way that succession works for you.

To see a couple of examples of this type of agriculture, check out these two videos at you tube:

There are multitudes of natural processes that we can harness or situate to our benefit. People who live downstream of nasty, sweaty, snake infested swamps are drinking some of the cleanest water on the planet. Draining wetlands so we can grow McMansions with two and three-car garages destroys natural, embodied wealth in this and uncountable other forms. Constructing wetlands enables nature to create natural capital in multitudinous forms. Work in a stepwise manner. Do one thing right; then observe what happens next. Use your observations to guide further actions.

Use Nonrenewable Fuels to Invest in Lasting Infrastructure

A friend of mine maintains that we should never build anything that we don’t want to have around (and didn’t design to last) for at least 200 years. A lot of embodied energy goes into the design and construction of a building, particularly a public building, much of it in the form of the fossil fuels that are converted into work energy, heat, and “pollutants” in the process. Yet we’re lucky if much of what we build these days lasts a decade. There was a TV ad for a new housing development here in Albuquerque recently that offered a seven-year guarantee, promising, I suppose, that the houses wouldn’t fall down or leak or engage in other structural misbehaviors for seven whole years.

When you spend money you have in savings, you want it to count. You don’t want to spend your savings going to the movies or driving around town. We should use nonrenewable resources only to create the kind of durable infrastructure that lasts for centuries, collects natural capital passively, and doesn’t require constant additional nonrenewable inputs.

Salvage Before You Mine

The Earth’s crust contains a finite amount of mineral wealth, particularly close enough to the surface for us to mine. Iron and copper, among other metallic ores, are becoming noticeably scarce. Meanwhile tons of metal lie baking in the sun in salvage and scrap yards all over the world.

Nuff said: more tomorrow.

April 18, 2010

Peak Oil

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 7:23 pm

Of Rates and Volumes

The volume of a sphere is finite, as is its surface area. If you take a single grain of wheat and double it, take those two grains and double them, take those four and double them and so on just 64 times, the number of squares on a chessboard, you end up with more wheat than has been grown in the entire history of humankind. If you just do it 63 times you end up with half that amount, still probably more than all people throughout history have ever consumed. Exponential growth of this kind starts out at a seeming snail’s pace but blows up quite rapidly after a few doublings. Even if the Earth’s entire volume were filled with petroleum, such a steady growth in consumption would use it up in a surprisingly brief period of time, a few centuries. Of course long before that could happen the growing strain on other resources or on the biosphere’s ability to clean up after us would put an end to the whole shebang.

The Earth is not filled with oil. Oil formed over periods in the neighborhood of 100 million years under a very restricted set of conditions and exists only at a particular depth and within rock strata having particular characteristics. Oil resulted from the crushing and cooking-under-pressure of dead algae deposited on the sandy bottoms of shallow seas sometime before T Rex was the latest thing in the ongoing evolutionary extravaganza of predation. Actually, in Pennsylvania there were places where the local oil’s subsurface crock pot had cracked, allowing oil to seep to the surface, but those spots were discovered and drained long ago. More recently, some have claimed that the Earth actually is filled, partially at least, with abiotic oil, oil that was formed below the surface through chemical processes, without the need for the ultimate sacrifice from billions of tiny Jurassic algae. Ilya, a physicist friend (from a small town in the Urals, but currently working in Silicon Valley), and beer maker extraordinaire told me he attended a colloquium at Berkeley about abiotic oil. Turns out it’s a real phenomenon. Problem is, it occurs at a depth of around 100 kilometers.

Now, I’ve worked as a deck hand on a drilling rig. Drilling is a painful process. Every so often the drill bit will crack or wear down to where it has to be replaced. At a decent depth it can take an entire shift just to retract all the pipe, disconnecting each section and stacking them all upright against the derrick, replace the bit, and reassemble the whole thing to get back down to depth with the new bit. I’m not sure the strength of your materials would allow you to drill a 60-mile shaft, or if they would how long it would take to do it. And if you could do it, what kind of a pump would it take to suck that stuff up a 60-mile straw. No such pump exists at this time. Even with biotic oil, the normal kind that rests at more friendly depths of 7500 to 15000 feet, once the natural gas that keeps the oil under pressure so that it comes to you like a trained volcano has been captured or burned off, you have to pump water into the well to keep the pressure up so you can continue to fill your tanks. Abiotic oil is not physically or economically feasible. Even if it were physically doable, you would burn more fuel bringing it to the surface than the operation would yield.

Of the Lifespan of Industrial Civilization

So, to review the bidding, oil is a finite resource that will not renew itself within the lifetime of a species. It is, for all practical purposes, nonrenewable. This means that it can be used up. And given our current economic system and an infrastructure that was designed and engineered to use oil as its essential feedstock, it will be used up, at least to the point where it takes more energy to mine it than it provides after refining.

The same basic argument applies to every other mineable mineral (or mineralized) resource, including coal, uranium, iron, gold, copper, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorous, etc., etc., etc… Any way you slice it, industrial civilization, at least in any form we can currently conceive, is a one shot affair, a blip, a transient pulse, flash in the pan, parenthesis, choose your favorite metaphor. And that’s a good thing, because from where I sit industrial civilization appears to be a gigantic complex of processes that, if supplied with sufficient fuel, will not stop until the last blade of grass has been turned into toxic waste.

I had intended to talk more about geophysicist Marion King Hubbert and to go into some of the details of his theory and methodology. But that information is out there and readily available. If you want to know more go to The Oil Drum, or The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), or Jay Hanson’s website. Or, you can look up Peak Oil on Wikipedia. The main point is that whatever you may ultimately conclude regarding Hubbert and the details of his theory and methodology, the realities of life remain: a civilization based on perpetual economic growth in a finite world is living on borrowed time. And really very little time when you get down to it.

I’m more interested, at this point, in talking about post-industrial civilization and how to make it bloom amidst the ruins.

April 15, 2010

All About Growth

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 4:47 pm

When I was growing up, there was a series of books, many of which found their way into our elementary school libraries, called the All About books. When I was in 2nd grade I discovered and became fascinated with Dinosaurs. So of course I read All About Dinorsaurs and every other book on the subject that I could get my grubby little hands on. Eventually, I exhausted the school library’s supply of such titles and, casting about in desperation, ran across another All About book: All About Early Mammals. I thumbed through the pages. Okay, I thought, they’re weird looking; some of them are almost as big as a dinosaur; I’ll give it a try. Reading the book in 3rd grade reading class, I discovered that much of our information on the subject came from fossils found in the La Brea Tar Pits. As I recall, the book went into some detail about the horrors of getting stuck in the tar pits; they were a regular prehistoric abbatoir. I became so engrossed, I forgot where I was. Gazing into space, the better to picture to myself the scenes of slaughter, I happened to hear one of the girls in my class reading from the day’s lesson: “Mary and Sue went down to the beach to play in the water.” “NO!” I corrected. “They were TAR pits!” Much hilarity ensued, along with a note to the parents, etc.

The only point to this little vignette is that the All About books were never totally satisfying because they fell far short of their title’s promise. They always left me a little disappointed. I was certain there was more. Fair warning Today’s subject is big. It involves strange and monstrous behaviors. And you can be certain that there is always more.

When we think about growth in ecological terms, especially in terms of human ecology, we’re looking at the idea in two separate but interconnected dimensions: growth in population, and growth in consumption. The more individuals there are, the more food, water, shelter, jobs, and entertainment they will require. Consumption, though, can also grow along a different axis, the axis of the individual. Consumption increases with population, but the appetites of the indiviual can increase as well. It’s important, here, to mention the canonical yet very important distinction between quantity and quality when it comes to the products we consume. The very first Europeans to arrive in the “New World” found themselves somewhat dwarfed by the indigenous people. The simplified diet of the “civilized” world couldn’t compete with the nutritional variety and quality inherent in the array of offerings from which the indigenes could choose. Another interesting factoid relates to the population density of the Americas circa 1491 – 1520. To illustrate, early Spanish explorers of Florida reported that the life expectancy of a Spanish soldier landing alone on some arbitrary stretch of beach on the southern Florida coast was around 3 minutes. Apparently the natives of those parts had gotten wind of the habits and intentions of the European explorers. Apparently my childhood history texts seriously underestimated the population density of the “New World” in 1491.

The distinction between quality and quantity will become very important when we begin to consider what kind of growth might be sustainable.

In 1798 a curate of the Church of England named Thomas Malthus published a paper entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population predicting food shortages by the end of the coming 19th century. His argument was based on the idea that the demand for food would outrun the supply because population grows faster than our abilty to increase agricultural yield. The rate of population growth increases with the number of people. The more people there are the more people there are to get down to the business of reproducing. So not only does the number of people increase with each generation, but the rate at which the number of people increases with each generation increases with each generation. Increased agricultural yield, on the other hand, depended on human effort:

man is a lazy animal, who would lead a satisfied life and procreate as long as his family was well fed. However, as soon as human population would feel constraints in food supply due to increase in population, he would again work hard to provide enough for his family. This might lead to an increase in agricultural production to provide for all, but at the same time man would be back to his complacent stage, where all his needs would be fulfilled. This would start the cycle of overpopulation and food shortage, all over again.

Of course, and as always, there were food shortages for the poor and the displaced. There were food shortages caused by agricultural policy, as in the Irish Potato Famine. But the full extent of his dire predictions did not come to pass within the timeframe of his theory. So his ideas are largely ignored these days. But while his predictions were falsified, his essential insight is still with us and stubbornly refuses to go away.

In the early 20th century quite a number of people began to wonder “how long can this go on.” The Great Depression was a great catalyst for such questioning. The great depression was a great example of poverty in the midst of plenty. Of course in certain parts of the country drought worked together with poor soil management to produce the dust-bowl shortages. But by and large the US was a country rich in natural resources and economic potential. Yet people went hungry all across the land. Looking back you could say that the depression represented a crisis of distribution, a problem in the financial system. You might say that the dynamics of the system were producing the very effects that the system was “designed” for. Of course the system’s design was not entirely intentional; it was the result of myriad decisions, political and economic over many decades. Nevertheless some people began to wonder. How long can this go on? What kinds of things actully limit growth, and how can we avoid these effects so that a catastrophe of this type doesn’t happen again?

So, alright let’s get to the meat. What is this thing called growth? Growth is an increase in quantity or size over time. In can also imply development, complexification, self-organization, a process of elaboration and refinement. It can be qualitative as well as quantitative.

Let’s look at quantitative growth. The type of growth I’m interested in is what you might call steady growth. In terms of steady growth the two relevant types are linear growth and exponential growth. Linear growth is interesting because it seems to be how humans are wired to think. We are very good at extrapolating trends in a linear fashion. Of course if you think of growth you have also to think of decrease or depletion, since mathematically depletion is just growth with a negative sign. Or, as one of my favorite comic strips, Pogo, says, “If you gonna talk about life an’ everthin’ else then that everthin’ else gotta be death. Seems like that makes life a perty risky business.” News reports are full of linear extrapolations. They usually begin with phrases like, “at present rates of consumption,” and then go on to predict that a given resource will last some number of years, usually in the hundreds. Linear growth is called linear growth because if you were to make a graph of your periodic measurements, annually, quarterly, whatever, the graph would be a line. Sure, the line could have a very steep slope, indicating rapid growth. But the rate of growth would never change. The slope of a line is always the same. And because we think naturally in terms linear growth, even linear growth that you might consider to be catastrophically rapid, would never surprise us. As soon as we see the growth rate, we know that it will be constant, and we can plan or adjust accordingly. Exponential growth is anothet kettle of fish, one that no one seems to like to smell much.

The really annoying thing about exponential growth (and decay) is that the rate is constantly changing. Now that’s great if you have a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the bank collecting compound interest but more difficult if you’re trying to figure out how many lanes to add to your local bypass so that you don’t have to do it again in 3 or 4 years. Dr. Albert Bartlett’s description of this frustration is illuminating:

When I first calculated the Exponential Expiration Time (EET) of U.S. coal for a particular rate of growth of consumption, … I used my new hand-held electronic calculator, and the result was 44 years. This was so short that I suspected I had made an error in entering the problem. I repeated the calculation a couple of more times, and got the same 44 years. This convinced me that my new calculator was flawed, so I got out tables of logarithms and used pencil and paper to calculate the result, which was 44 years. Only then did I begin to realize the degree to which the lifetime of a non-renewable resource was shortened by having steady growth in the rate of consumption of the resource, and how misleading it is for leaders in business and industry to be advocating growth of rates of consumption and telling people how long the resource will last “at present rates of consumption.”

So what type of steady growth is he talking about? Because linear growth seems to be steady, since the rate is constant, equal to the slope of the line.

The Power of Two

Since I’m feeling lazy, I’m going to quote Dr. Bartlett one more time:

Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for an ancient king. As a reward for the invention the mathematician asked for the amount of wheat that would be determined by the following process: He asked the king to place 1 grain of wheat on the first square of the chess board, double this and put 2 grains on the second square, and continue this way, putting on each square twice the number of grains that were on the preceding square. …We see that on the last square one will place 2 exp(63) grains and the total number of grains on the board will then be one grain less than 2 exp(64).

How much wheat is 2 exp(64) grains? Simple arithmetic shows that it is approximately 500 times the 1976 annual worldwide harvest of wheat? This amount is probably larger than all the wheat that has been harvested by humans in the history of the earth! How did we get to this enormous number? It is simple; we started with 1 grain of wheat and we doubled it a mere 63 times!

The point he stresses is that “exponential growth is characterized by doubling, and a few doublings can lead quickly to enormous numbers.” Usually this type of growth is expressed as an annual percentage: 3% percentage annual growth in GDP, or some such. Three Percent? That ain’t shit! You might say. Well, actually, a steady annual growth rate of 3% will double the original quantity in 23 years and 4 months (give or take a couple of days). To get the approximate doubling time in this fashion, apply the rule of 70: T =(approximately) 70/r, where T is the doubling time and r is the percentage growth rate. If you want a more accurate number, do the math.

Imagine you are a healthy, reasonably well-off and respected bacterium in a nice jar of rice culture. You have a job as what passes for a city planner in bacteria culture, and there have been some rumblings among the masses concerning the dangers of overpopulation. What you don’t know is that the population is growing at a rate that causes it to double every day, at this rate the jar will be full in 30 days, and it’s now day 29. How does this look from your perspective? Well, you say, we have as much unused space as we have used in the entire history of our civilization. Therefore, you reason in your linear fashion, we can go on as we are for 29 more days. Remember, 29 days is a long time for a bacterium, think in the thousands of years range. Pretty funny, huh? The joke is on him. This is exactly how people think.

Tomorrow, back to peak oil and whatever else might be peaking.

April 14, 2010

The Empty Bathtub

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 3:32 pm

The world is complex enough, but when you add the cacophony of conflicting views and interests vying for attention and clouding every issue the noise can become so painful and distracting that to think about anything at all just seems like too much to deal with. Just let me ease on through as best I can. I have enough to deal with. There isn’t anything I can do about it anyway. Poor me. This is not the finger of accusation; it’s the litany of confession. But there is one thing I’ve found that clears the air for me. That is to stick to the basics and reason from fundamentals. It’s the way I got through school. It’s the way you learn to deal with multiple attackers in Aikido. It’s the only way I know to make sense of all this bruhaha.

One issue that has become particularly cacophonous over the past decade is the debate over what is the best policy to adopt given the looming shadow of impending resource limits. Just as concerns over pollution and sink-side limits to growth in general have coalesced around the phrase global warming and its attendant cacophony of ideological argumentation, fears about running out of this or that critical resource and their attendant ideological back-blasts have centered on the idea of peak oil. Just look at a list of blog-post-titles on the subject:

Reasonable criticisms of the idea revolve mainly, in my observation, around two points. The first criticism points to the reality of ongoing discoveries of new oil “reserves.” The second critique attacks the methodology used by “peak-oil-theorists.” Many of the arguments are contextualized in such a way as to suggest that some sort of cultish or apocalyptic psychology underlies all such theories (e.g., Mayan 2012 Peak Oil Prophecy). But such hitting-below-the-belt tactics are common and have to be overlooked in favor of evaluating the merits of the very arguments that they obfuscate. By that I mean that while it would appear that such a headline seems designed to get the reader to classify subscribers to the idea of Peak Oil with the likes of mayan-calendar-apocalypse wing nuts, we still have to read the argument charitably and, ignoring such “dirty tricks,” use it as a tool for testing our own position. Moving beyond the spin-packaging, we ask the question: are the analytical tools and methods used by the proponents of Peak Oil actually flawed?

To begin, though, I always like to refer to simple realities, basic patterns that anyone can observe, and reflect on the physical laws they illustrate. Consider the lowly bathtub. It is a simple system comprising a faucet, a basin, and a drain. Now, the water has to come from somewhere, just as the drain has a somewhere associated with it as well. But to begin, we’re going to draw a line around our bathtub system and consider source and sink to be externalities. Water flows into the basin from the faucet and flows out of the basin through the drain. If the rate of inflow from the faucet is greater than the rate of outflow through the drain, then the water level in the basin will rise. Reverse the situation and the level will drop. Stop both flows and the level will remain constant (disregarding evaporation). A simple system. If you want to a take bath, you plug the drain, turn on the faucet and let it run until the water reaches the desired level, and then shut it off.

But, of course, water is not the only thing that the basin stores. There is also heat, or more precisely, kinetic energy in the water at the molecular level. Left to its own devices a nice hot bath won’t stay nice and hot for very long. Unless you want to have to sit up every couple of minutes so you can drain some of the cold water out and replace it with fresh heat from the faucet, you’re going to have to find a way to balance the in and out flows so that the temperature of the water in the tub remains relatively constant. Let’s say that you are (a) really clever, and (b) obsessed with your daily extended period of relaxation in your nice, warm tub. So you add a control loop to your system in the form of a thermostat which triggers a system of servo-driven valves. The thermostat measures the water temperature and compares it with a preset temperature goal. Whenever the water temperature drops below the desired level, the thermostat produces a signal that triggers an electronic relay which connects the servos to their power source, causing them to open both valves and allow cold water to flow out through the drain and hot water to flow in from the faucet. When the water temperature rises to a preset high, the relay drops out, disconnects the servos, and shuts off the in and out flows. Ah…heaven. Bliss.

Talk about convenience! A person could get used to this. Acclimation is training. Whatever we get used to, we can stand more of. When this process takes us in a desired direction we call it training. When it goes the other way we call it addiction. You find yourself wanting to spend more and more time in this comfortable cocoon. One day your system fails. Maybe you have fallen asleep. You wake up in a tub full of freezing water into which cold water continues to flow. What’s wrong? Your system was fool proof. Such are the thoughts of a fool. Now it’s time to erase our imaginary system boundary and widen our focus to include the larger system of which our daily bath is just a small part. You investigate and discover that you have exceeded your water heater’s capacity. It turns out that your bath system exports heat faster than your water heater’s heating element can replace it. Obviously you need a heater with a larger reservoir. And a bigger heating element! You NEED More!!

You get the picture. This is the basic pattern we are working with. It’s a collection of dynamic interactions that incorporates living and mechanical systems along with their respective traits and foibles. In this, it is very much like an industrial economy. Our comfy bath-time was limited by the infrastructure we devised to regulate and deliver our warm water. If this process were to continue to a ridiculous extreme, it’s possible, or at least conceivable, that even with bigger and bigger water heaters, water heaters the size of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, we might eventually run out of fuel to burn. Because, as I discussed in my post on April 6th, all great truths begin as blasphemies (catchy title, huh? I stole it from George Bernard Shaw), planet Earth is physically, materially finite. No process that depends on energy and resources embodied on or within this planet can continue to grow in perpetuity. Eventually, you have to get out of the tub and get on with your day.

And now it’s time for me to get off my comfy couch and get on with mine. Tomorrow I want to talk about growth. Then we will be in a position to essay an evaluation of all this pique surrounding peak oil.

April 13, 2010

Of Sinks and Drains and Climate Chains

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 1:13 pm

The time has come, the Walrus said…

The question of the day, carried forward from yesterday’s blurb on global warming, is how do we know for certain that the greenhouse gasses that our busy, work-a-day, burning desires, ultimately, generate actually set in motion the climate shifts that appear to be taking place? What is the true chain of causation? Where does it begin? The short answer, to my way of thinking, is “who cares?” Not satisfying? Okay. I promised to talk about chains. By that I meant chains of causation, strings of interacting dynamic processes, cycles large and small, cycles nested within cycles, networks and filagrees of causal loops and chains stretching back, for all human intents and purposes, into beginningless time. Finding the Prime Culprit in all this is a bit like trying to unravel a Mandelbrot set. It’s a problem with an elaborate boundary that doesn’t resolve at any degree of magnification.

So how do we know for sure that we are the mischievous little culprits who, in our quest for heaven on earth, are busily bringing about our own undoing? Because that is the real claim. Of course it wouldn’t be difficult to make the argument that every species that goes extinct (and every species sooner or later goes extinct) participates in bringing about its own demise. Each one does this through its magnificent adaptation to particular set of rigorously difficult enviornmental constraints. Having a particular form, a particular metabolism, a particular set of skills and predispositions tied to a particular niche (or set of niches), a particular temperature range, and so on places one in a situation where ones existence depends on circumstances remaining within the set of constraints to which one has become irreversibly adapted. But we live in a world of cycles nested within cycles, cycles moving energy and material around at widely (or should I say wildly?) varying scales and magnitudes and over periods of time ranging from nanoseconds to billions of years. We like to think that the status quo is just the way things are and, really, the only way they could be. In reality, the status quo, the atmospheric balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, the average planetary temperature range, the climatic stability of different regions are all governed and maintained by dynamic cycles and chains. Just ask anyone who has ever experienced an earthquake.

And you never know when the prevailing regime of reasonably navigable fluxuations will be interrupted by some much larger energetic cycle with a period in the thousands or tens of thousands of years and simply wiped away.

There. Have I expressed adequately the degree of causal uncertainty one might justifiably entertain regarding the causes of climate change? Within this vast and byzantine labyrinth of causal linkage what possible significance could our monkeying around with a bit of fire have? Shall we talk now of straws and camels and butterfly wings? No? Get to the point? Alright. Assuming the average planetary temperature is rising, as we discussed yesterday, whether or not the primary cause of this shift is human greenhouse gas emissions or a larger natural climate cycle, it seems to me that rising greenhouse gas emissions can only contribute to this dynamic. The larger planetary dream may already have us circling the drain, or it may not. Either way, I see no reason to go out of our way to hasten the outcome.

Speaking of drains, there is another dimension to this discussion. A drain has a place; it’s usually at the bottom of some kind of sink. Assuming that it’s possible to overload the atmosphere with CO2 generated by industrial activity, and it seems likely that it is if you look at the composition of Venus’s atmosphere, then at the point where the atmospheric percentage of CO2 alters the climatic heat engines to the point where most of the local climate regimes render our measly little metabolisms inconvenient, you are looking at what ecologists and others who study system dynamics call a sink side limit. There is only so much that you can change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere before altering all the cycles–nitrogen, carbon, water–and chains, before resetting, as it were, the global thermostat.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Today.

April 12, 2010

What is This Thing Called Global Warming?

Filed under: Limits to Growth, System Dynamics & Culture — Lonnie @ 6:17 pm

Skepticism here in the US surrounding the subject of climate change and global warming is widespread. Phrases like “wow, record low temperatures and snowfall this year; I don’t see any global warming around here.,” have become overnight cliche’s. I’ve heard somewhat more sophisticated criticisms from a couple of friends of mine, one an environmental engineer and the other a cognitive psychologist, to the effect that “the hard scientific evidence isn’t there.” It seems to me that two very important ingredients are missing in this discussion: one, an understanding of complexity and of the nature of system dynamics modeling, and two, awareness of the importance of the principle of charity as applied to rational debate.

Let’s begin with number two. Long ago (CE 397), St. Agustine wrote an interesting little book entitled “On Christian Doctrine.” Despite its rather dogmatic sounding title, the book is really an early thesis on semiotics and hermeneutics, that is, how to translate and interpret texts, texts, in this case, of the Holy variety. In discussing the interpretation of ambiguous signs and expressions, in particular regarding whether they should be interpreted in literal or figurative terms, he proposed the The Law of Charitable Interpretation: whatever interpretation increases the feeling of charity (in his sense, the love for God and the love for your fellow humanoid types) is the correct interpretation. Whatever breeds otherwise is a misinterpretation.

To be clear, I’m not a theologian or even particularly impressed with any path or philosophy that requires strict adherence to a belief system. (I’m more impressed by the philospher Quine’s humorous take on the problems inherent in the very idea of belief, which you can find in his book Quiddities.) The point here is that the Law of Charitable Interpretation, with a more secular emphasis, has become a fundamental principle of rational debate, so much so that as a reader or listener, not to apply this law has come to be regarded as a major logical fallacy. If you want to refute someone’s position, then you have to understand and present it in its best possible light. If you want to refute someone’s argument and have your refutation actually mean anything, you must first articulate it in its strongest, most accurate terms. Not to do so is to indulge in knocking down paper tigers. In other words, you have to know and honestly represent what your opponent is actually saying. To the best of your ability.

So, what does the theory that has been dubbed global warming in the popular press actually say? To the best of my understanding, it says that different atmospheric gasses have different degrees of transparency to heat radiation. Gasses that are less transparent in this way tend to retard the radiation of heat from the Earth’s surface back into space. The atmosphere’s overall transparency to heat radiation results from the mixing of many gasses of varying degrees of heat transparency. So, one would predict that if the atmospheric percentage of gasses like methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide rises significantly, then the average surface temperature on the planet should rise to some degree. Also, though, a rise in average temperature means that more solar energy is trapped inside the atmospheric blanket. More energy in any system translates into a more active, more excited system. Such excitation translates into wider variations in atmospheric temperatures and pressures, which leads to more frequent and severe storms and a shifting of weather patterns as the system struggles to fall into a new regime that is relatively stable.

So, while the average temperature rises, you should expect to see colder winters and hotter summers in some areas, though this is just one possible way the increase in atmospheric energy might manifest. Average temperature is a statistical measure. It’s possible that you might have an average temperature, X, planetwide at the same time that a temperature of X is never measured at any particular location. Global warming would not be a smooth, linear change. The effects would vary from location to location and in different latitudes.

The rise in average temperatures affects many many processes planetwide. Here is where complexity comes into play. You can think of complexity as an attribute, a sort of descriptive parameter, that applies to systems. A system is first a conceptual construct. It is a mental model of a particular kind, a kind that attempts to represent the dynamic behavior over time of some part of the world we live in. As such, and to correct Rush Limbaugh, the complexity of a system can be measured. It can be measured because it applies not to the world, but to our conceptual model. The test of our model, as in any scientific model, lies in how closely it fits the observed behavior over time of whatever part of the world we are trying to understand. If the fit is compelling, then we can say that something like complexity as we understand it is at play here. We can also then say that the degree of this something-like-complexity is at play to somewhere-near-the-degree that it is in our model.

So what is a system? A system is a collection of entities whose behaviors affect one another and therefore feed back on themselves. These entities can be people, molecules, atoms, organisms living in your garden’s soil, markets in different parts of the world, what have you. Complexity is primarily a measure not of the number of entities, though this number does play a role, but of the number of ways in which they interact. It is a measurement that reflects the density of the connections. So a complex system has multiple causal connections, many of them in the form of circles or loops — feedback. Changes in flow rates or storage levels are reinforced by some of these loops and balanced or negated by others. The overall result cannot be predicted analytically. The best we can do is try to build a computer model that reflects the behaviors as we understand them, and then run it to see what it does.

So when we think about global warming and climate change in these terms, certain things can be predicted with some confidence; others are more difficult to nail down. For example, common sense would tell you that if the average temperature world-wide is rising, at some point you should begin to see the melting of alpine and polar glaciers. This actually is happening at what, to many, is an alarming rate. If polar ice-caps are starting to melt, then it makes sense that the permafrost above the arctic circle should also begin to melt at some point. This is occuring as well. Here’s the interesting part. This melting of glaciers and polar ice is going to affect other dynamic processes. And the predictions you come up with regarding the long-term climatic effects of global warming will depend on some degree on which processes you have in your sights. Complexity is, you know, complicated.

For example. The melting of glaciers and oceanic ice in and around Greenland is dumping large quantities of fresh water into the North Atlantic. This is likely to interfere with the pumping mechanism that maintains the Gulf Stream, which in turn is largely responsible for Europe’s temperate climate. Normally, the cold dry air of the North Atlantic increases the rate of evaporation from ocean’s surface. The water evaporates, but the salt remains. This cold, salty surface water is very heavy compared to subsurface waters, so it sinks. This heavy, sinking water is like the piston of a pump, drawing in warmer waters from the south at the surface and pushing the subsurface waters away. If this pump were to slow or come to a standstill, perhaps because the surface water is less saline, it would have a slowing effect on global warming. As the warm subtropical waters cease to travel north, glaciers begin to grow, especially in Europe where you would be likely to see the beginnings of a new ice age. More ice would increase the albedo of that part of the globe, reflecting more of the incoming solar radiation back out into space, thus reinforcing the formation of more glaciers, and so on. So in this scenario global warming sets up a compensating loop that tends to reverse, or at least moderate, the effects of global warming. Though this occurs at great environmental and economic cost to Europe and possibly North America as well. Interestingly, though, the mechanism of this compensation takes the form of a run-away positivie feedback loop that could set a new ice age into motion. Unless, of course, other dynamics come into play to balance this dynamic.

For example, there is the melting permafrost. Within the permafrost methane is trapped in the form of methane hydrates. As the frost melts the methane is released into the atmosphere. Methane is a much more opaque than carbon dioxide to heat radiation; hence it is a much more effective greenhouse gas. More heat releases more methane which contributes to the dynamic of warming leading to more heat, still more methane, and so on. A viscious cycle.

How do all these complex dynamics resolve themselves? We don’t know. But either way there is potential for great economic and environmental mischief. So we might be wise to err on the side of caution. Ah, you say, but even granted that greenhouse gasses contribute to these dynamics, how do you know that human release of greenhouse gas emissions is actually the cause of all this? Climate cycles have occurred throughout the planet’s history.

Good question. But I’ll have to talk about that tomorrow. For now, I gotta go and swing some kettlebells around.

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