Humans Seem to Need External Energy

Strange as it may seem, humans seem to have evolved in a way that we have a need for external energy, such as energy from burning wood or fossil fuels. While the evidence is not 100% certain, it appears that we learned to use fire long enough ago that it is now  necessary for our food to be cooked. Otherwise, in many climates, we would need to spend half the day chewing our food, and we would not be able to do much besides gather food and eat it. (People on raw food diets get around this issue by using a blender, which also uses external energy.)

There are other evolutionary deficiencies as well: How do we deal with our lack of fur? How do we deal with our evolutionary dental problems? How do we deal with “survival of the fittest”? If we want our children to live, we continually need more food for our growing families. Cooked food gives more choice of food supply. We don’t think of humans as having instincts, but like dogs, we have a tendency toward hierarchical behavior, and this affects our need for (or at least “want for”) external energy.

An additional issue, now, of course, is that the world’s population is over 7 billion people. Even if we had not evolved to require using external energy, cooking our food makes many more types of food available, and is from this point of view much more practical than raw food. Cooking food does not in itself take a huge amount of external energy, but once we had learned the skill of using external energy, it opened new doors for other applications.

In this post, I will explain how these and other evolutionary issues relate to mankind’s need for external energy, such as wood, or gasoline, or electricity.

Humans’ Need for an Outside Energy Source

According to Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology, energy is important for all living organisms. Plants and animals literally can’t live without a source of energy. Except for humans, plants and animals get all the energy they require from natural sources: from the food that they eat, or from sunshine through photosynthesis. Some organisms derive the energy they need through oxidation of inorganic compounds. Because of these natural mechanisms, these species have everything they need for survival, without requiring clothing or shelter, or other types of goods.

We can see how different humans are from other animals by comparing ourselves to large primates such as chimpanzees. Large primates spend much of their day gathering and eating raw food. They are not as intelligent as humans, and they mostly live in trees, so as to be able to avoid predators. This limits their choice of food supply. Their total number is far smaller than humans, because they need to stay in habitats to which they are adapted. The number of large primates varies by species (100,000 to 200,000 chimpanzees, about 130,000 gorillas, and fewer than 250,000 Gelada baboons according to the National Primate Research Center), but is always far fewer than the 7 billion humans in the world.

The shift away from behavior similar to that of other primates seems to have started after humans learned to control fire and learned to cook food. Chris Organ and others have shown that for a primate the size of humans, cooking food decreases the amount of time that must be spent chewing food from 48% of daily activity to 4.7% of daily activity. With so much more free time, the way an animal spends its time can change dramatically. Those changing to cooked food could do more hunting, and because of this change, include more meat in the diets. This would improve diets in another way.

It is well-known that cooking makes grains much easier to digest. Grains are a major agricultural crop, so cooking helped enable the transition to agriculture, around 10,000 BCE.  With the transition to agriculture came the possibility of much higher world population.

Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham in “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” sees evidence of evolution of adaptation to a cooked food diet as early as 1.9 million years ago. When Homo Erectus appeared at that time, teeth and guts were smaller than in predecessor species, and brains got larger. He speculates that the energy that had previously gone into digestion might have gone into brain development.1

With  the evolution to smaller teeth, smaller gut, and bigger brains, humans have a real need to cook at least part of the food they eat. So outside energy for cooking food is one real need for the 7 billion people on our planet today.

Other Reasons Outside Energy Is Desired

Humans evolved without fur. Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire argues that fire allowed humans to evolve without fur, because a hairless animal can warm itself by a fire. A hairless animal is at an advantage chasing animals because it can dissipate heat much more quickly, allowing a hairless animal to catch one with fur by chasing it until it drops of heat exhaustion. The down-side of having no fur is that humans need at least some type of protection from the outside elements, especially if humans move to locations outside the tropics. Such protection might come in the form of clothing or shelter, or both. Outside energy would be helpful in creating food and shelter, but not as essential as for cooking food. Here again, being able to cook was helpful, because the reduced chewing time permitted more time for creating clothing and shelter.

Humans evolved with little defense against predators, except their intelligence. While other primates could climb trees, humans could not. They couldn’t fly or swim either.  Here too, outside energy sources were helpful. According to Wrangham, if early humans were gathered around a campfire, and a predator approached, one means of defense was to swing a fiery log at the predator. A group of humans could be protected from predators overnight by having a watchman with access to burning logs stay up all night. Eventually, humans learned how to use outside energy sources to build transportation of many types: automobiles, trucks, boats, and airplanes, to make up for deficiencies in the area of self-transportation.

Humans gradually found other ways that energy could be used to help overcome their evolutionary deficiencies. About 75,000 years ago, humans discovered that by heating rocks before they made tools from them, tools could be made more efficiently, and with a sharper edge (KS Brown et al, 2009). They later discovered that metals could be created with the use of external heat, expanding the type of tool that could be made. Humans evolved with hands that were more dextrous than those of other animals, so being able to produce good tools gave humans an advantage over other animals.

One deficiency of human evolution is that our tooth enamel has not evolved to withstand a diet high in starches. (PS Unger, 2012) Dentistry, which uses energy in many forms, including metal for tools and electrically operated X-ray equipment, helps provide solutions to these evolutionary deficiencies.

Humans, with their upright posture and large head sizes (because of large brains) have tended to have difficulty in childbirth, resulting in many deaths. Modern medicine helps overcome the problem of excessive mortality in childbirth. It, too, uses a lot of external energy, including metal tools (created using heat), sterilization, and medicines made from petroleum products.

Humans Outwitted Survival of the Fittest

In the natural order, each mother gives birth to more offspring than are needed to survive to maturity. This tends to work very well, because the offspring that are best adapted to the environment tend to survive to adulthood. As changes occur, such as a change in climate, or an increase in a particular type of predator, the offspring that are most able to handle the new environment are the ones who survive.

Humans, because of their intelligence, have found ways to defeat survival of the fittest.  As areas get overpopulated, humans have moved to areas where they have a better chance of survival. Humans have found ways to increase food supply, through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and refrigeration, all of which require fossil fuels. They have developed trade, so that so areas with shortfalls can benefit from surpluses elsewhere. Humans have developed a world financial system, which has helped enable world-wide trade. The financial system has also allowed investors to pay for goods after they are put into service, so that the cash flow resulting from an investment can be used (after the fact) to pay for the cost of the investment. This enables investment, and faster use of resources, including energy resources.

One of the reasons for continued upward population pressure is the fact that humans have evolved to live beyond their reproductive years. In their declining years, humans often need assistance, either from their offspring or from a public pension program, or both. Because of concern for their own old-age, people without pensions tend to have enough children so that there is a significant chance that a child of the right sex will survive to adulthood. With improving medical care, this tends to lead to ever-rising population.

As an actuary (but not a pension actuary), I am aware that even when there are public pension programs, fewer children can cause funding problems. Public pension programs are typically transfer programs, where today’s taxes on working citizens pay for today’s benefits to retirees. If the number of retirees becomes too high relative to the number of workers, it becomes very difficult to pay a reasonable level of pension benefits to retirees. The use of “pay-as-you go” funding reflects a reality of life: whatever goods and services are available in a given year will have to be split between retirees and the current working population. If there are fewer workers relative to retirees, funding becomes very cumbersome for the workers.

The pressure of continuing population growth is a major reason for the need for supplemental external energy. The additional population needs to be fed, housed, and clothed. The additional people also needs jobs, and in today’s world, these jobs require external energy inputs.

Controls Built Into the Population System

Nature builds a number of controls into the system, so that overpopulation will not occur. The most obvious one is limited food supply. We have found ways around this problem, thanks to the use of fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, cultivation, and fast transport to market.

Figure 1. World population was able to increase greatly, once fossil fuels started adding to food supply about 1800.

Thanks to the wonders of fossil fuels, world population has been able to rise to 7 billion.

Besides limited food supply, there are a number of other controls in the system. One is infectious diseases. If humans live in close proximity to each other without adequate sanitary precautions, infectious diseases become a problem. In today’s world, these are not much of a problem, because we have built water and sewer systems, and have developed antibiotics. Doing these things required external energy sources, generally oil and other fossil fuels.

Craig Dilworth in “Too Smart for Our Own Good” says that there are instinctual behaviors that would normally act to prevent overpopulation. One of these is territoriality. Primates and most mammals are what are called K-selected species.

In K-selected species, territoriality tends to hold down population size by restraining the number of breeding pairs. We have all seen territoriality, if we have male cats or dogs. They mark out their territories, and defend them.

The territories chosen by instinct by K-selected species are large enough to ensure that populations do not grow to such a size that they undermine their own resource base. Thus, if territoriality is working properly, there is no problem with tragedy of the commons (excessive use of shared resources), because the territory selected by the male for his family group is large enough to feed the family, with much available food left over.

There are a number of related mechanisms for keeping K-selected populations in balance with the rest of the ecological system. For example,

  • Too high population tends to cause stress and leads to violence against neighboring groups. The winner gets more territory; the losers typically are killed.
  • Infants may be killed, to keep the population in line with resources.
  • Learned behaviors or instincts may limit when mating takes place.
  • High population will tend to attract predators (germs, in the case of humans)
  • If population is too high, hierarchical behavior (another instinctual mechanism) may appear or increase. Because individuals who do not need resources get a disproportionate share of the total, there is less for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, helping to reduce population size more quickly than if resources are shared equally. Those at the top are spared.

Humans have managed to overcome territoriality to a significant extent. One mechanism is language, since it allows humans to communicate with one another. Another is trade. If an outsider is of some value to us because of goods we gain through trade, then an individual is less likely to kill the outsider when he comes into contact with him. Another is religious beliefs that encourage respect for human life, and thus prevents killing of infants. The availability of sufficient resources, as has mostly been the case since World War II thanks to fossil fuels, may also act to reduce territoriality.

The Role of Hierarchical Behavior

A person often hears the comment, “We would have plenty of resources, if we would just share them more equally.” Yes, that is true, but as mentioned in the previous section hierarchical behavior is an instinct, put in place in other species to help keep population down. If individuals at the top hoard more of the resources, then individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy are starved out–part of survival of the fittest, that humans (including myself) find so objectionable.

Hierarchical behavior, if combined with a taxation system that helps transfer money to the poor, seems likely to lead to greater use of resources. If nature had been allowed to run its course, the portion of the population that nature considers excess would have been starved out. With the combination of hierarchical behavior and taxes to protect the poor, we have (from an energy demand perspective) the worst of both worlds: lots of people at the bottom of the hierarchy, who thanks to the transfer payments have the financial ability to buy goods and services made with energy products, plus we have all of the people at various distances from the top, who want to gather as much of the resources as they are able to, in an attempt to get to the top of the hierarchy.

The Connection of Energy With the Economy

Apart from all of the biological issues associated with the need for energy use, there is an economic aspect. External energy is needed for any kind of manufacturing (except the simplest home handicrafts, such as picking reeds and making baskets from them). It is needed for any kind of transportation of goods or people, except walking or transport based on animal labor. External energy is used extensively in today’s production of food, even when produced organically. A person would expect there to be a connection between the amount of energy available, and the amount of goods, such as food or new homes, produced.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of how much goods and services an economy is producing. In the version I am using here, it is “real” GDP, which takes out the effect of inflation. Thus, if an economy grows by 1%, there are 1% more goods such as houses built and food sold, on average during that year. Having more goods and services available is especially helpful if population is growing, and new members need to be fed and housed.

When we look back over the past 2000+ years, we see a pattern of gradually increasing GDP growth. (See Table 1 below) The rise in growth seems to match up with increasing external energy. Although data on energy usage is not available prior to 1820, we know from other sources that there was a gradual growth in other types of energy usage prior to that date, such as the burning of peat most, water power, wind power, and a little coal usage. I will talk more about this in a future post.

Table 1. GDP Growth based on Angus Magnuson Estimates of World GDP since 1 CE. Energy Growth estimates are based on estimates by Vaclav Smil in Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, and Prospects. Energy amounts prior to 1820 are really unknown, but are shown as “0”.

If we look at the long term, we can see that the really big increases in GDP growth (that is, over 1% per year), all came after 1870. That was about the same time that energy growth started ramping up over 1% as well, because of the growth in coal usage. (Of course, economists who have only looked at GDP growth since World War II would consider GDP growth of 1% very low. They would prefer GDP growth of 3% or more a year.)

It is not surprising that GDP growth is a little higher than energy growth on Table 1, because GDP reflects growth in “goods and services”. Goods take energy to produce and transport. Services, such as financial services or the cutting of hair, can often be done with little energy input. To the extent that part of the growth in the economy is services, less than the full amount of energy is required to produce the corresponding  GDP percentage growth. There may also be savings through more efficient use of energy, for example, through more energy-efficient cars, trucks, or light bulbs.

We can also show the GDP growth listed in Table 1 as a graph, shown below as Figure 2, below.

Figure 2. GDP growth from the first column in Table 1, graphed.

The Relationship Between Energy Growth and Population Growth 

The impression a person gets from looking over the long history is that as more energy products became available to society, people found ways to put them to use that allowed more goods and services to be sold. With more goods and services available, it was possible to feed and clothe more people, so the “survival of the fittest” issue referred to above became less of a problem. If we compare Figure 2 with Figure 1, we can see that the spike in population coincided with the rapid rise in GDP, in the last couple of centuries.

We can also look at the relationship between population growth and GDP growth more closely using estimates by Angus Maddison going back to 1 CE. Here we find that prior to 1820, about 80% of GDP growth was absorbed by population growth. It is only since the growth in the use of fossil fuels, and especially since World War II, that rising GDP has been far above population growth, permitting a sustained rise in standard of living.

Figure 3. World average growth rates in population, energy, and GDP based on data of Angus Maddison (GDP and population) and Vaclav Smil (energy).

Can We Reduce Human Demand for External Energy?

It’s clearly not easy to reduce human demand for external energy. (One exception: If you are an economist, it is very easy to reduce demand for external energy. All you have to do is either (1) increase the price of that energy, so the poorer folks can’t afford it, or (2) reduce consumers’ incomes (perhaps by laying them off from work), so they can’t afford it. Either of these will reduce demand, according to their definition of demand. When you hear the term “demand destruction,” this seems to be what is meant.)

But what if we really want to cut back on the amount energy that the world’s population wants, at a fixed price, without reducing the buying capacity of consumers?

Here, I think the first issue in stopping demand growth is stopping the continued rise in the world’s population. As long as the world’s population is rising, even in lesser developed countries, there is going to be a continuing need for more food, clothing and housing. This is an issue we don’t seem to be able even to talk about. It may offend people.

Figure 4. World Population by Area, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration. FSU is Former Soviet Union. EU is the European Union-27.

Second, there is room for making vehicles more efficient, for insulating homes better, and for making other similar changes. But getting large savings in this manner is not as easy as it looks, partly because an initial investment is involved, and partly because when people find that they can save money by the change, they are likely to spend the money they have saved on another product that also requires energy to make, such as taking a vacation. When the overall picture is considered, the net savings are lower. This issue is common enough that it has a name–Jevons’ Paradox.

Third, a country can easily make its energy consumption appear lower by “offshoring” heavy industry (which uses lots of energy), and changing to more of a service economy. If it still continues to use products created by heavy industry, just importing the products rather than making the products itself, it is not at all clear that there are savings for the world as a whole. If we look at Figure 3, we can see that energy consumption definitely rose more rapidly in the 2000 to 2010 period than in the previous two ten-year periods. The 2000-2010 period is a time-period when much industry (and jobs) shifted to Asia. While there was some energy savings in countries that sent manufacturing overseas, the energy consumption of developing countries in Asia grew more rapidly than the energy savings, resulting in higher overall growth in world energy consumption.

To a significant extent, we start finding ourselves with what I call a “Whac a Mole” problem. (In the Whac-a-Mole game, a person is faced with trying to whack down a mole that keeps popping up from one of five holes, but whenever it is whacked down into one hole, it reappears in another one.) Especially with oil which is high-priced and internationally traded, we have a situation where if one buyer chooses to buy less oil (or gasoline, or diesel), there is a good chance that some other buyer, perhaps in China or India, wants to purchase it. It all comes down to financial issues, which I will discuss in future posts.

The energy demand issue is a frustrating one. The more you look into it, the knottier the problem seems.


[1] Richard Wrangham’s findings are disputed by some anthropologists, because we do not have direct evidence of human cooking as far back as he indicates. They also believe that there might be other explanations for his findings, such as greater eating of meat. Wrangham in a 2009 paper argues that the early date isn’t really necessary for his finding to be true; even 250,000 years ago would be sufficient for evolutionary changes to take place. He also argues that compared to chimpanzees, humans seem to be adapted for a higher-quality diet because they “exhibit higher energy use, but have reduced structures for mastication and digestion”.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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138 Responses to Humans Seem to Need External Energy

  1. Ikonoclast says:

    In one sense, Leo Smith is right. I say this even though I disagree with him more fundamentally.

    It seems very likely that all non-renewable energy sources will be substantially used up. This includes fossil fuels of course. The reason is as Leo Smith puts forward. The need for as much energy and resources as possible right now will likely continue to trump concerns for future dangers like AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming).

    I happen to think that this will lock us into global warming of plus six degrees C or more which will be disastrous. Leo happens to be very sceptical about this. I guess Hoot’s philosophy (from Blackhawke Down) is appropriate here;

    “You know what I think? It don’t matter what I think!”

    The facts are it doesn’t matter what I think and it doesn’t matter what Leo thinks. Whatever is built in (by the laws of human behaviour, the laws of industrial momentum and the laws of physics) is going to happen anyway. The notion that we can turn this around and push solar (or even nuclear power) through and keep the fossil fuels in the ground seems to be a non-starter. About 5 billion people on this planet have no choice and are even unaware of AGW anyway. Of the other 2 billion, maybe 500 million are seriously aware of AGW and maybe 250 million actually accept the theory. I doubt even 1 million of these are seriously living the life that would prevent AGW.

    There can only be change (if at all) if some clear and salutary disasters occur. That is to say, some disasters must start occuring which kill millions to hundreds of millions of people very quickly and these disasters must be totally, unambiguously connected to clear and undeniable climate change. That is the only possible game changer.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Ikonoclast: I am glad that you agree at least in principle that there is no point in arguing about AGW – the real context is one of unstoppable climate change – whether it’s up down large or small – and falling fossil reserves.

      Starting from that position, we probably agree on what policy should try to achieve, although we strongly disagree on what solutions will actually work.

      That is actually progress!

    • With respect to timing, I think the issue is timing, and how much we could actually change. As I understand it, a lot of the change is already “baked into the cake,” based on past emissions. It is basically too late.

      Also, the climate has been changing all along. Before the warming since 1800, we were getting out of the “Little Ice Age”. We are probably deluding ourselves if we think we can cause the climate to be a certain way.

      And there is also the problem of how you actually reduce fossil fuel use. The one way I can see that would work is to cut off international trade. The economies of all of the countries would fall apart, and less fossil fuels would be used. But who would agree to this, unless the economy fell apart on its own?

      • fungestrumpet says:

        If we say it is too late to combat climate change, we commit future generations to a living hell, unless you have information that a six degree Celsius average temperature rise can be described in any other way. Perhaps you should read the blog posts: ‘Climate Change, Irreversibility, and Urgency’ (re-post from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) and ‘Why Arctic sea ice shouldn’t leave anyone cold.’ Both are cool, calm analyses of the current situation, though ‘chilling’ would perhaps be a better adjective.

        We can be fairly sure that the weather this summer is the result of a meandering jet stream, which is exactly what is expected because the Arctic temperatures are rising towards those of lower latitudes and thus reducing the differential. How on earth are farmers expected to plan their planting and harvesting, and indeed what to plant and harvest, when they cannot be sure of what conditions they are going to meet? Some variation is only to be expected, but what has happened this year cannot be described as normal variation surely? Next year might produce normal weather, a repeat of this year, or perhaps different conditions entirely. At least this summer has shown that climate change is no longer something only for future generations to worry about.

        It is not too late to combat climate change, but it is getting there. What we need is an urgent and thorough raising of public awareness on this issue. It is difficult to believe that anyone would be happy if they knew what is in store. The problem is that there is a lot of unscientific misinformation being bandied about, some of it by scientists. (I hope they enjoy spending their thirty pieces of silver.) At least in the age of the internet, and with it YouTube and the like, a large body of evidence exists for when the public demand punishment for those guilty of deliberately disseminating misinformation on this issue.

        • Leo Smith says:

          “unless you have information that a six degree Celsius average temperature rise can be described in any other way”

          Sure it can be described in another way. The nicest word I can find to say is ‘fictitious’.

          Why do you feel the need to make your point with violent emotional statements?

          Even if it were remotely true, it would actually increase the amount of area where crops could be grown and people, live immensely – there is more land up towards the Arctic than there is near the equator, and a 6C rise would make N Europe a Subtropical Heaven.

          The far greater danger is a 2-3C fall in global temperatures. That would destroy most of the cereal crop growing regions in the world.

          On the historical evidence, as opposed to the hysterical evidence, we might well be heading that way.

          • funglestrumpet says:

            When 97% of the world’s recognised climate scientists say that climate change is a real and present danger and among the remaining 3% there are scientists known to receive reimbursements from the fossil fuel industry (and previously from the tobacco industry when lung cancer was being disputed the way climate change is today), the evidence is sufficiently conclusive to convince all but the most ardent of sceptics that we need to do something about it.

            If in ‘doing something about it’ at a personal level, one discovers just how near we are to tipping points that could easily lead to irreversible climate change, one is entitled to get a little annoyed when one comes across a statement that it all “fictitious,” especially when the person making the utterance not only fails to provide any corroborating evidence, but also makes another statement that: “a 6C rise would make N Europe a Subtropical Heaven.” Leo, your other posts clearly indicate that you know better than to take an average rise instead of the upper and lower bounds which define a location’s habitability. A six degree average will actually mean that some areas of the world, N Europe included, could easily become uninhabitable, without 24/7 air conditioning for long periods at a time at least. Far from being a “Subtropical Heaven” methinks.

            Such dependence on external energy could easily mean a death sentence if there were any loss of power for more than an hour or two. As for agriculture, forget it. As for nine billion population, forget it, even if they are actually present in numbers, they won’t be for long, sadly. A world warmed by an average of six degrees just won’t be able to feed them. I just hope my family die quickly in the wars for food that must follow as night follows day, instead of dying a slow lingering death from starvation. (And you fail to see why someone might get emotional about that prospect!) Yes, that might sound hysterical, if so, then I make no apology. Unlike smoking, I cannot give up climate change, it is being forced upon me and my family. And forced because people either give up without a fight or cannot see the evidence before their eyes. But of course, this summer was nothing to do with climate change, was it? Just a coincidence that it followed exactly what the science says should happen.

            I have been studying climate change since the early 80s and have watched as the world’s politicians have repeatedly missed opportunities to turn the situation around. Even this morning I had to endure the chairman of the Commons climate committee in the U.K. arguing for an expansion of Heathrow airport, despite all the evidence that aircraft are among the worst polluters because they dump CO2 just where it can do most harm most quickly. All politicians today can think of is economic growth and to hell with the well-being of their families.

            If climate change is fictitious, you must have reasons for saying so; what are they? Among those reasons you must have an alternative explanation for the dramatic decline in ice cover that the Arctic has been experiencing for many years now with this year set to smash, not just break, the record yet again; what is it? Perhaps if you actually read the blog posts that I recommended, it will avoid my having to refer to them by way of any rebuttal that I might reply with.

          • funglestrumpet says:

            Just a quick comment. On reading back my post, I realise that I have not explained my six degrees C figure that is considered fictitious. A quick Google search will give its provenance from many sources. It is hardly fictitious.

            There are even some who say that the world has a natural binary temperature setting, so to speak, and flips between the two. I forget the upper bound, but it is quite high. For a detailed discussion, one should search the Royal Society archive for a Professor James Lovelock’s talk ‘Climate Change on the Living Earth’. In that talk he gives evidence for the earth suddenly rising to a new stable state some six degrees C warmer.

            I do not know where the idea comes from that a six degree rise is fictitious, perhaps we will soon know. Until then, I will go with Professor Lovelock, a recognised polymath and among a number of other accolades is also a fellow of the Royal Society.

  2. funglestrumpet says:

    I hope Ikonclast doesn’t live long enough to have his or her grandchildren ask what they did when there was still time to avert climate disaster. An honest answer would seem to be: “I gave up without even bothering to fight.” And this after this year’s summer has shown those prepared to open their eyes a taste of what may well be to come. It doesn’t need “clear and salutary disasters” to alter public opinion, just the realisation that the fossil fuel industry is only interested in profits and profits at any cost.

    The amazing thing is that nearly all the senior fossil fuel executives have families that they know will suffer directly as a result of their industry’s behaviour, yet are so wedded to their pay and bonuses that they turn a blind eye, blithely ignoring what happened to the originator of the expression. Either that, or they simply haven’t got the guts (or any other part of their anatomy) to face up to those above them.

    The not so amazing thing is that the politicians are so desperate for campaign funds that they can, in many instances, be bought. That it also appears that some scientists can also be bought is just plain sad. Sad that they can behave in such manner when they of all people should be seekers of truth and sad that their universities seem to ignore their shenanigans.

    All it really takes to fight climate change is for those guilty of deliberately manipulating public opinion to face some form of sanction. For professors to be stripped of their position and title, for politicians to be deselected and banned from holding any political office for life. For senior executives who can be shown to have had a part in orchestrating the fossil fuel industry’s campaign against combating climate change to face the charge of committing a crime against humanity. Clearly, this final category includes those employed by any public relations companies involved.

    These sanctions will not come about until the public realises just how much they have been deceived and the dangers it faces, especially with relation to tipping points, which could make the whole process of warming unstoppable. The public is not going to rise up while the Ikonclasts of this world give up at the first hurdle, even while admitting awareness of the potential six degree (C) projected temperature rise, which will be nothing short of dire.

    Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, a fossil fuel company, says “We have spent our entire existence adapting. We’ll adapt,” Sure, we can adapt. All we need to do is select where to bury the dead, of which there will be a vast number. They will be easy to bury though because they will be emaciated, having died from starvation. I want something better for my children and grandchildren. I am sure the rest of the public do too, well, most of them. All that is needed is to raise their awareness.

    Anyone wishing to know more about climate change could do worse than visit

    • Leo Smith says:

      “All it really takes to fight climate change is for those guilty of deliberately manipulating public opinion to face some form of sanction. For professors to be stripped of their position and title, for politicians to be deselected and banned from holding any political office for life. For senior executives who can be shown to have had a part in orchestrating the fossil fuel industry’s campaign against combating climate change to face the charge of committing a crime against humanity. Clearly, this final category includes those employed by any public relations companies involved.”

      The problem is that the emerging evidence is actually that these people are the ones shouting loudly about climate change and forcing technologies *that demonstrably do nothing of any significance to affect carbon emissions, or fossil fuel consumption* on the public, for profit.

      The fossil companies love renewable energy. It increases energy costs and therefore profits whilst doing little or nothing to reduce consumption

      Of course this year has been interesting. So far zero hurricanes have made landfall in the USA and tornado count is much lower than usual. You can read a static jetstream over the Northern hemisphere in two ways. :-)

      • funglestrumpet says:

        Point taken regarding renewables. I certainly think that there is a con-trick going on regarding their efficacy and would much prefer loads of small, local LFTR nuclear power stations to a forest of wind turbines, especially when they are just standing limp in still air. It would be o.k. to even consider an expansion of the current design of nuclear power stations but for their public image, which I fear has been ‘greened’ beyond redemption. It is difficult to see how they can get sufficient public support to get them built in a timely manner.

        LFTRs, on the other hand, are new, have an almost inexhaustible fuel supply, do not need copious amounts of water, which is scarce in a lot of places, so they can be located almost anywhere, they cannot safely be used to make nuclear weapons and most of all, they are automatically safe in the event of a problem. If we can only get the Greens to act in a more responsible manner, we might be able to provide enough energy from them in time to meet our static energy needs and thus avert the most dire effects of climate change. What is more important: reciting a mantra of ‘Nuclear bad!’ at the very mention of anything nuclear regardless of the harm such behaviour does, or keeping the temperature rise to a minimum? It is just a shame that there appears to be little alternative to oil being necessary for transport purposes in the main (LFTR powered ships perhaps?).

        Regarding the jet stream, while it is a good thing that there have been no hurricanes making landfall in the U.S.A., surely the important point to consider is that the jet stream will tend to meander as the temperature differential between the north pole and the lower latitudes diminishes as a result of the poles warming more rapidly. That can only be a bad thing for agriculture and thus our food supply because farmers, be they large, small or of the ‘home grown’ variety, will find it difficult to plan if they cannot be confident regarding their seasons or even which plants will suit their new conditions. After all, we are a few short years away from a population of nine, perhaps even ten, billion and all that that means for food supply.

        I do not live in the U.S.A. and am not aware of the tornado situation there. I thought that there had been a major ‘storm’ of them earlier on, which would not have been a good thing, but perhaps I am wrong.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Not directly related to this post, but generally relevant to Gail’s body of posts.

    A new movie just opened called The Queen of Versailles. It is a documentary which, among many other things, shows vividly the problems posed by maintenance when the cash flow dries up.

    David Siegel, his third wife Jackie, and their seven children are on top of the world in 2003 in Orlando, FL when the documentary begins. It ends in late 2011 when many things have gone wrong. In 2003 David is a mover and shaker in the political world, and claims to have insured the election of Bush by means which ‘may not be legal’. They host all 50 contestants for Miss America in their house. David made his money developing time-share resorts.

    It all falls apart post-Lehman, when the banks refuse to extend more money and begin insisting that money owed be repaid.

    There are many different things you can say and conclusions you can draw. I will emphasize only one: the maintenance costs of the Siegel lifestyle. They are living in a ‘small’ house with 100 doors. They have a private airplane and a yacht and all their children attend private schools. They employ 19 servants, many of them as nannies. Jackie says that she always wanted one child, maybe two, but then she found out about nannies and had a lot of children. They are building a 90,000 square foot house which is modeled after Versailles. They are accumulating furnishings in a warehouse which is eerily reminiscent of the warehouse in Citizen Kane.

    As the movie maker returns for periodic visits post-Lehman, we see the steady deterioration physically and socially and mentally. For example, they cut the staff to four, and the house becomes an unkempt pigsty. David becomes very tightly focused on money–he carps about people leaving lights on and wasting electricity and when someone leaves one of the hundred doors open and wastes conditioned air, he attacks.

    But dreams die hard. While David is doing no maintenance at the unfinished Versailles, he refuses to give it up. He tells his dog that he and the dog will live in the 90,000 square foot house and leave Jackie and the children in the ‘small house’. Jackie may be reduced to shopping at Wal-Mart, but she buys multiple copies of everything and stuffs the vehicles to overflowing with toys for the children. The children do not adjust well to losing the servants who cleaned up their messes.

    If you think that the credit expansion which facilitated the Siegel’s lifestyle has also facilitated an expensive lifestyle for more modest income Americans (as well as Greeks, Spaniards, etc.), but that we are now experiencing Peak Credit, then this movie may give you some idea about the problems to be encountered on the downslope.

    Don Stewart

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Once again, I have a comment which does not relate specifically to this post, but does relate to Gail’s body of work. I will try to elaborate a little on Kurt Cobb’s question:

    Suppose we accept the general notion that change requires a ‘burning platform’ (

    plus some vision of an option which is better than the burning platform. We can assume that the current power structure will be doing everything possible to convince all the people on the platform that: the platform is not burning; or it is burning but the fire is contained; or it is a very slow fire and you have lots of time; or there is no alternative to the platform. So if someone is a truth teller like Gail, they have to do their best to convince everyone that the platform is indeed burning and represents a clear and present danger.

    In addition, someone has to present a credible scenario for some alternative which is better than staying on a platform which is probably going to burn one to death. It might be Gail or it might be someone else.

    I have been reading The Forest Unseen by the biologist David George Haskell. He is observing a small section of an old growth forest in Tennessee. On April 8th he writes about the maples and the hickories. The maples have leafed out, while the hickories are still bare. The difference is a hint that the two species are following different strategies. Both work, obviously (or natural selection would have selected one of them out of the running), but they are quite different.

    Haskell points out that by thrusting their leaves skyward, the trees have become slaves of the physics of their plumbing. Their plumbing is remarkably efficient in that it is able to raise many tons of water high in the sky with no external source of energy. ‘Inside the trees’ leaves, sunlight causes water to evaporate from cell surfaces and drift out of breathing pores. As vapor wafts away from wet cell walls, the surface tension of the remaining water tightens, particularly in the narrow gap between the cells. This tension yanks more water from deep in the leaf. The pull moves to the leaves’ veins, then down the water-conducting cells in the tree’s trunk, finally all the way to the roots. The pull from each evaporating water molecule is minuscule, like a breath of wind tugging at a silk thread. But the combined force of millions of evaporating molecules is strong enough to haul a thick rope of water up from the ground.’

    I won’t try to reproduce all the details here, but the structures of the maple trees and the hickories are different, reflecting their different strategies for accomplishing the daunting task. One tree reuses last years mechanism, while the other tree constructs a new mechanism every year.

    Now suppose you are a tree (with a brain somewhat smarter than the average American) which has been using fossil fuels to pump the water up to your leaves. But you get a message from your friendly biologist that the oil company will shortly stop supplying you with oil. What should you do? Well, first, you consult the oil company, which stoutly denies that they will ever leave you without oil. You go through various stages of denial. Some of the trees say ‘the end is near, and we are all going to become mosses clinging to the ground’. Some of the mosses say ‘we believe that we can cleverly harness the power of surface tension to raise water to our leaves, but we will have to become shrubs instead of tall trees’. Some of the trees say ‘we can raise the water to our leaves by cleverly using surface tension, but we are going to have to construct a different physical substrate for the water to travel. we can reuse the same substrate from year to year.’ Some of the trees say ‘we can raise the water to our leaves by cleverly using surface tension, but we will have to build a new physical substrate each year because of the damage to the substrate done by ice in the winter’.

    Do you think that these smart trees would ever jump off the burning platform with any coherent strategy in mind? If they have TV Talking Heads, the talking heads have plenty of room to cast doubt on the opposition. In fact, the TV Talking Heads can cite real disadvantages to all of the alternatives. The maples suffer under certain conditions, and the hickories suffer under other conditions. Neither is a perfect solution like a fossil fuel pump.

    If you examine Haskell’s book, you will find numerous other examples of plants and animals selecting a strategy which has both good points and-not-so good points. For example, pollination and seed dispersal strategies.

    My point is that when you have something working for you which seems, at least on the surface, to be ideal, and you can’t think of any alternative which doesn’t have drawbacks, and when the TV Talking Heads are paid handsomely to point out the drawbacks, and when you have a well-funded campaign to get you to stick with the burning platform, change for the majority is going to be very difficult indeed. And hammering out a National Policy solution which most everyone agrees with is likely impossible.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I don’t see a national policy solution. No one would ever agree, and anything that might theoretically be adopted would cost too much and take too long.

      At best I could point out some partial mitigations. It is hard to see that all 7 billion of us will make it, and that makes solutions problematic.

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