Supplemental energy puts humans in charge

Energy is a subject that is greatly misunderstood. Its role in our lives is truly amazing. We humans are able to live and move because of the energy that we get from food. We count this energy in calories.

Green plants are also energy dependent. In photosynthesis, plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into the glucose that they need to grow.

Ecosystems are energy dependent as well. The ecologist Howard T. Odum in Environment, Power, and Society explains that ecosystems self-organize in a way that maximizes the useful energy obtained by the group of plants and animals.

Economies created by humans are in some respects very similar to ecosystems. They, too, self-organize and seem to be energy dependent. The big difference is that over one million years ago, pre-humans learned to control fire. As a result, they were able to burn biomass and indirectly add the energy this provided to the food energy that they otherwise had available. The energy from burning biomass was an early form of supplemental energy. How important was this change?

How Humans Gained Dominion Over Other Animals

James C. Scott, in Against the Grain, explains that being able to burn biomass was sufficient to turn around who was in charge: pre-humans or large animals. In one cave in South Africa, he indicates that a lower layer of remains found in the cave did not show any carbon deposits, and hence were created before pre-humans occupying the cave gained control of fire. In this layer, skeletons of big cats were found, along with scattered gnawed bones of pre-humans.

In a higher layer, carbon deposits were found. In this layer, pre-humans were clearly in charge. Their skeletons were much more intact, and the bones of big cats were scattered about and showed signs of gnawing. Who was in charge had changed.

There is other evidence of human domination becoming possible with the controlled use of fire. Studies show a dramatic drop in numbers of large mammals not long after settlement by humans in several areas outside Africa. (Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct, based on P. S. Martin’s “Prehistoric overkill: A global model” in Quaternary Extinctions: A Prehistoric Revolution.)

In recent times, humans have added fossil fuel energy, hydroelectric energy and nuclear energy to their “toolbox.” All of these energy sources have allowed humans to stay in charge.

Whether humans’ control of energy is good or bad depends on a person’s point of view. Without humans being in charge, the human population would likely be similar in size to that of the populations of chimps or gorillas–in other words, tiny in comparison to today’s human population. Furthermore, humans would be located only in the warmer parts of the world. As we will see in the next section, humans would not have evolved in the direction they did. Instead, they would have continued with only the abilities they had as pre-humans. They would have continued living in the wild, eating raw food and spending half of the day chewing it.

How the Controlled Burning of Biomass Produced Amazing Results 

Pre-humans learned to control the burning of sticks and other biomass over one million years ago. This new-found ability helped our ancestors in many ways:

(1) Pre-humans could cook part of their food. (Richard Wrangham, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human) The ability to cook food increased the variety of food that could be eaten because some foods need to be cooked to be edible. Chewing time could be greatly reduced (Chris Organ et al.), leaving more time for tool making. Moreover, cooking allowed nutrients in food to be better absorbed.

(2) Less of the energy from food was needed for the maintenance of large teeth, jaws, and guts. Instead, more energy could go into building a larger brain. In this way, our ancestors could outsmart their predators, instead of depending on their muscles and teeth.

(3) Pre-humans could use fire as a tool to burn down unwanted trees and brush, making it  easier to capture prey and encouraging new plant growth of a type more suitable as human food. Also, the fire itself could be used to frighten predators.

(4) Stone tools could be made sharper using heat.

(5) The heat from fire could be used to enlarge the range where pre-humans were able to live.

(6) Larger brains and frequent gatherings around campfires allowed language to develop.

(7) Humans, with their larger brains, were able to selectively breed different types of plants and animals, choosing characteristics that were better suited to their needs. As humans tamed fire and animals, they themselves became (in some sense) tamer.

The Physics Reason Why Energy Is So Important

We are all familiar with how the energy from food allows humans to grow. We also know how solar energy allows green plants to grow. Most physics instruction focuses on thermodynamically closed systems—that is, systems to which no new energy supply is added. Sometimes isolated systems are discussed—again a situation where no additional energy is available. In these situations, there is no growth—only a gradual depletion of the available energy supply, leading ultimately to “heat death.”

More recent analysis has shown that thermodynamically open systems, which are characterized by inflows of energy, are very different. They can, and do, change and grow. Hurricanes grow when heat from warm seawater is available. Stars grow as the result of the chemical reactions taking place within them. All of these structures (known as dissipative structures) are temporary in that they cannot continue to exist when suitable flows of energy are no longer available. They can also be undone in other ways, such as too much pollution or by other forms of “entropy.”

On earth, the energy system we experience is an open system. Energy from the sun is constantly being supplied. Energy made available by burning biomass and from burning fossil fuels is also being supplied, as is nuclear energy, in the form of electricity. The energy obtained from burned fossil fuels, in fact, reflects the re-release of ancient solar energy that was once stored in the bodies of small plants and animals. Under the proper temperature and pressure conditions, this stored energy had been slowly transformed into fossil fuels.

The Hidden Nature of Energy Consumption 

When humans burn fossil fuels today, they are able to access the use of this stored energy. Some researchers have talked about the ability to utilize fossil fuel energy as being similar to having “energy slaves.” In making this analogy, it has been observed that a human adult produces roughly the energy output of an always-on 100 watt light bulb. Even when humans were still hunter-gatherers, they made some use of energy slaves, approximately tripling the amount of energy available to the economy at that time. By the time the industrial period was reached, always-on watts per capita had climbed to 8000, indicating that energy available to industrialized humans was 80 times as high (8000/100 = 80) as the amount expected based on food energy alone. The huge increase represented primarily the use of fossil fuels.

Figure 1. Relationship between human energy use and population.

In Against the Grain, Scott finds that slave labor was very widely used in early civilizations. Male slaves were often used for tasks requiring heavy labor, such as mining and building roads. Today’s fossil fuel energy slaves can do these things and much more. For example, a truck operated on a road makes liberal use of fossil fuel energy slaves partly to make the road, partly to build the truck and partly as fuel to operate the truck.

Any commercial process requires energy in one or more forms. Part of the energy can be human energy. This human energy can be used in many ways such as typing on a computer, listening, thinking, operating machinery, speaking, digging in the ground, and walking. The rest of the energy is likely to consist partly of electricity and partly of fossil fuels burned for heat. (Some of this heat energy is converted to rotary motion in order to power vehicles.) Constructing a building requires a tremendous amount of energy; manufacturing a car is also energy-intensive. Heating and lighting a building require energy. Even obtaining a potable glass of cold water requires energy.

Figure 2 is a chart showing a breakdown of non-transportation energy consumption in the United States, based on data from the United States Energy Information Administration.

Figure 2. United States non-transportation energy consumption by sector, based on information from the US Energy Information Administration.

The residential percentage of non-transportation energy consumption rose from 23% in 1949 to 29% in 2017. We don’t have a world estimate of the breakdown of energy consumption for residential use, but the United States is probably unusually high with its 29% residential share. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, China’s energy consumption was only 11% residential in 2014.

If people do not understand how much of our energy consumption is hidden, it is easy for them to overestimate the benefit that can be achieved through energy conservation by individual citizens. A major use of supplemental energy (that is, beyond that available from food consumption) is to provide finished goods of all sorts, such as cars, homes, electricity transmission lines and roads. Supplemental energy consumption also provides the gift of free time. Without modern agricultural equipment, many more of us would be working long hours in the fields, leaving little time for advanced education and other modern pursuits. Another benefit of supplemental energy consumption is a much longer life expectancy, thanks to such things as clean water and antibiotics. Indirectly, supplemental energy consumption also provides jobs that pay well. Without supplemental energy consumption, there would be few jobs other than digging in the ground with a stick, in an attempt to grow food.

In a very real sense, the availability of inexpensive energy supplies that work to power existing machinery and equipment is what allows today’s economy to function.

How Can We Tell If Human Carrying Capacity Has Been Reached?

If we are discussing primates such as chimpanzees, baboons and gorillas, it is fairly easy to tell when the carrying capacity of the environments they inhabit has been reached. These primates depend on local food and water supplies. If there is not enough food to go around, the weakest and the lowest ranking will find themselves without enough high quality food, bringing the population back below the carrying capacity. In some cases, as population density rises, there may be aggression toward immigrants to the territory. Females have even been observed to kill the infant newborns of community members.

Humans have control of various types of energy supplies, in addition to food. These energy supplies make it easier to produce enough food for the overall population. People today are used to having things that wild animals do not have, such as clothing, education, climate controlled homes, transportation, medical care and retirement benefits. It should not be surprising that in our case, the first sign of reaching carrying capacity is something other than running out of food. In fact, the laws of physics suggest that reaching human carrying capacity is unlikely to be signaled by running out of any energy product, such as oil.

Instead, the issue that tends to arise as humans reach carrying capacity is increasing wage disparity. This issue arose in the 1930s, and it seems to be rising again now. Increasing wage disparity is a way, within our economy, of squeezing out some members, if there are not enough energy supplies to go around. Providing climate-controlled homes, automobiles, paved roads and electricity transmission lines for people all over the world would take a huge amount of energy supplies–far more than we have available today. Wage disparity assures that some groups cannot afford these goods and services, thereby effectively holding down demand for these goods and services.

Many people believe that oil prices are likely to rise very high, if there is a shortage. However, if wage disparity grows sufficiently large, any spike in prices is likely to be short lived. Instead, the energy limit that we are reaching may be prices that do not rise high enough to encourage adequate production of energy products. Without sufficient production of these energy products, there will be a shortfall of finished goods and services.

Physicist François Roddier in Thermodynamique de l’évolution : Un essai de thermo-bio-sociologie explains that when there is inadequate energy for an economy, the situation is similar to some members of the economy being “frozen out” through low wages. The same forces allow a rising portion of the wages (and other wealth) to go to the very rich. This situation is like steam rising. These individuals do not use very much of their wages to purchase goods and services made with commodities. Instead, they tend to use their wages for services (such as tax avoidance) that are not very energy intensive. Also, they tend to use their wealth in ways that tends to drive up asset prices, without adding true value. For example, buying previously issued shares of stock can have this effect.

Eventually, the poor are frozen out. In fact, in cases of extreme wage disparity, the problems can spread further as governments find it impossible to collect enough taxes to finance their spending.

What Characteristics Do Energy Supplies Need to Have?

Unless we are willing to give up our dominion over other species, including microbes, humans need to secure a supply of energy products that grows with human population. These energy products must precisely match the needs of current infrastructure. They also need to be inexpensive and non-polluting. They cannot add new problems of their own–new types of entropy.

At this point, we are running into difficulties. Fossil fuels are becoming ever more expensive to extract. They also lead to carbon dioxide and other pollution problems. Nuclear energy seems to be quite dangerous, given the problems with waste disposal and multiple accidents, including the one at Fukushima.

Wind and solar, and indeed hydropower, are not really solutions, either. For one thing, they are not very controllable. If humans expect to control their environment, they need to be in control of their energy resources. Even waterpower can vary by a huge amount, from month to month and from year to year.

Figure 3. California Hydroelectric Generation by Year, Based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Hydroelectric, wind and solar can be used in limited amounts, as part of a portfolio of energy products, but they cannot be used on their own, unless they are hugely overbuilt. In that case, only a very small portion (which can then be controlled) is used. Many people believe that storage can be used as an alternative to backup energy supplies, but the cost of adequate storage seems to be extraordinarily high because of the long-term nature of required storage. (Note also the apparent need for multiple-year storage indicated by the pattern on hydroelectric generation shown in Figure 3.) If humans expect to be in control of other species, humans need to be in control of the supply of energy resources.

Of course, choosing not to be in control is another option. In such a case, we can expect human death rates to rise rapidly. If this happens, women will again be valued for their ability to produce large numbers of children. Men will be valued for their strong muscles. The world will become a very different place.

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 financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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2,426 Responses to Supplemental energy puts humans in charge

  1. Fast Eddy says:

    China > Yale

    Yale amassed a fortune while working for the company, largely through secret contracts with Madras merchants, against the East India Company’s directive. By 1692, his repeated flouting of East India Company regulations and growing embarrassment at his illegal profiteering resulted in his being relieved of the post of governor.[4]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elihu_Yale

    • Ed says:

      FE, this I did not know. One does not get rich being good.

    • I told you so numerous times already, that general “pirate” mindset, tendencies and DNA form extra ordinary strong path dependency which is at the core of the current legacy-dominant system, and while it’s still steaming (well crawling) ahead.. way past some “factual data based” predictions..

      • xabier says:

        As the Nawab of Sardhana said to Churchill:

        ‘You British are just pirates!’

        ‘Indeed: but reformed pirates, your Highness, reformed!’ 🙂

  2. Baby Doomer says:

    Scientists warn fracking could cause water shortages after usage shoots up by 800% in parts of US

    https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/fracking-water-shortage-drought-fossil-fuels-oil-gas-duke-university-a8493451.html

    • The huge use of water is one reason why China doesn’t do fracking. It seems to have resources that could be used with fracking. IIRC, there are other issues involved as well, like too many people living in the area.

  3. Fast Eddy says:

    Caracas is nestled in a verdant valley perched at around 900 meters (2,953 feet) and its water is pumped from much lower sources. But the pumps have not been maintained, spare parts are scarce and President Nicolas Maduro’s administration is short of cash.

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-water/hospitals-scrap-surgeries-venezuelans-forgo-showers-as-taps-run-dry-idUSKBN1L018D

    This is not collapse…

  4. Ed says:

    Global Foundries a chip company in Malta New York is firing all its high paid employees under the guidance of McKinsey Consulting. That ought to make them competitive with TSMC in Taiwan. Who needs top notch tech guys the janitor can fill in. And more New York State subsidies for the company wholly owned by the dictator of Abu Dhabi is clearly in order. Life in the “CORE”!

    • I had my travel computer fixed in an Apple store recently. I asked the young lady who was working on it what her background was. She told me, “Oh, I just had had a couple of public relations jobs. I was a receptionist in an office building, and I worked as a hostess in a restaurant. Apple taught me everything I know about fixing computers.” I said, “So you had no computer experience whatsoever before you started this job.” She said, “No. I started two years ago, and I have had a couple of promotions. This career path has great potential.”

      As far as I could tell, she was a high school grad who was trained in a few intensive courses by Apple. There are “levels” of tech support, so things she couldn’t handle would be passed on to someone with more background/knowledge. But if Apple can take people with relatively little education and train them to do the standard fixes, it is a way to avoid paying the big bucks for people with degrees in computer science.

      • DJ says:

        If you have two-three levels of support, maybe it is cheaper to just five away a new computer to what the highest level can’t handle, than having another higher paid level support.

        • I noticed another support person saying something like, “You have a five-year old computer. The fixes that it looks like it needs make no sense on this old a computer. You would be better off purchasing a new one.”

          The fix they did for me was free. It involved reconnecting internal cable that had somehow come apart. If it happens again, I may need to get new cable, with fittings that fit more tightly.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        It gets much better(?) than that…

        Madame Fast is partial to having me plunk my computer on our kitchen island counter in the evenings to work…. while she slaves away over the stove….

        She got roaring drunk and tipped a cup of red wine over… my cat like reflexes were sadly … not so cat like … and some of the nectar splashed onto the keyboard before I could snatch it away…

        I licked and sucked on the keyboard… but many of the keys were still not working… I took out the blow dryer and tried that… alas … the crucial Delete key was not functioning…. I need that key to Control + Alt + Delete to logon….

        Fortunately this is a 3+ year old laptop and I already had duct taped the screen which was separating from the frame…. so it was near time to toss it (no need to lock M Fast in the closet again as punishment) – along with all the toxic elements inside … and the Intel chip … into the bin…

        So the next morning I head to Warehouse Office … and pick up a clearance sale on an HP machine…

        I take it back… get it online…. then someone named Lady in the Philippines (our Hong Kong tech support has dumped all the expensive tech support people and has a new team of people in Manila who remotely assist) logged onto my new laptop … installed all the software and shifted all the files (hmmm…. I wonder if she noticed my folder of p..orn files????) …. and by lunch time … I was back in the saddle…

        Thank you Lady … wherever you are.

  5. Baby Doomer says:

    Back in 2005 everyone expected peak oil to happen.

    And it didn’t.

    Now nobody is expecting it to happen – and it will.

    • Actually, peak oil will never happen, the way peak oilers expected it to happen. Instead, we will reach financial collapse that few people will connect with energy or oil. Oil Prices will stay too low for producers to extract the oil that seems to be available. The 50 or so years of supply that seems to be available is an illusion.

      • NikoB says:

        Don’t most people equate peak oil as a peak in total production levels. That is going to happen at some point. The question is whether the financial collapse is the precursor or the resulting consequence of that peak will probably soon be answered.

        • I expect that they come almost simultaneously. A financial collapse will pull down demand for coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium simultaneously. Spare parts will no longer be available for wind and solar in such a scenario, either.

  6. Davidin100millionbilliontrillionzillionyears says:

    oil soars above $100…

    oh, wait…

    WTI $65.02

    but:

    VIX soars above 30…

    oh, wait…

    VIX 14.64

    how much longer can this insanity continue?

  7. Fast Eddy says:

    Featured rant:

    SILVERGEDDON css1971 Wed, 08/15/2018 – 14:29 Permalink
    Oh for fuck sake anyway.

    First fucking mistake – actually going to a grocery store expecting to buy food !!!

    AHH HAA HAA HAA HO HO HO HO HEE HEE HEE !!!!!!!

    And the first virtue signaling smug asshole who says he is saving the planet by shopping at Whole Foods gets nut kicked continuously for 24 hours straight for being a fucking retarded zipper head Klingon cocksucker from Uranus.

    Lesson one. If it comes in a box or a can, it is not food.

    Lesson two. If it comes out of a national chain store, it is not food – even their produce in the ” organic food ” section is both suspect and dead to boot. It spent a minimum two weeks from harvest to truck to distribution center to regional warehouse to store to your fucking grocery cart. That shit is deader than the Monty Python parrot skit.

    Lesson three. Go to your local farmers market. Watch carefully to avoid the scammers that buy from stores to resell mainstream dog crap as a local produce lie to make money. Deal with local farmers that are organically certified, that can be verified as bona fide with a visit to the farm or referrals from other buyers. They pick their produce 12- 24 hours prior to you buying it, so the produce you purchase is about as live and vital as it gets outside of growing your own, walking out to the garden, picking it, and eating it real time.

    Lesson four. Real food needs cleaning and preparation – devote some of your worthless television / social media time to actually providing yourself with living food and learning how to prep healthy raw living foods. Probiotics. Fermented vegetables. Fresh juices you make yourself. Do some canning and preserving. If you love meat, buy grass fed beef by the side or quarter – pool with a couple friends if necessary to do so, and enjoy meat without GMO crop feeds, meds, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and feed lot stress before slaughter.

    Lesson five. Food is seasonal – learn how to eat and preserve what is in season, and how to ignore food that never grew here to begin with. Buy in bulk for grains, nuts, seeds, and beans from trusted organic certified farms. Learn how to dehydrate, can, preserve, mylar bag with oxygen absorbers for dry goods, freeze, and otherwise stretch the bounty of the growing season through the winter.

    Lesson six. Grow your own food as much as possible – even if it is in 5 gallon buckets and potting soil on your balcony of your inner city apartment, it will still be far more vital, delicious, and nutritious than any of the fucking dog shit for sale in a store.

    Lesson seven. I live in a fucking city of 5 million plus – it is easy to find farmers markets, buy good food, and do prep, preservation, and all the above in your own home. It just takes some effort. You don’t need a fucking farm – you just need a kitchen, a juicer, a food processor, a food dryer, and some canning jars and equipment. Plus the will to spend time learning and doing food prep rather than sitting on your ass in front of the tee vee every fucking night after work. I average 1-2 hours per day to eat well, and advance prep food for storage to make winter not such a bad time to be eating relative to available local produce. If you are living in a winter snow state, at least shop a real organic food co op or store for winter produce.

    You get one body, one life – take care of it, and tell the medical profession to go fuck themselves by not giving them your life savings to die horribly of treatments that will never cure the cancer you get otherwise. And, just because food is no guarantee, live a full life to the last day, and let whatever you get coming to you kill you cheaply instead.

    We all live, we all die. Accept it, tell the chemo radiation witch doctor vampire motherfucker to fuck off, that he ain’t getting a penny to kill you slowly and expensively. Give all your shit and your money to your kids, and die like a man with honor, dignity, awareness, and in full command of your faculties, and your destiny.

    And, lastly, I don’t give a fuck if you disagree – this is for people that want quality of life, and have a shred of consciousness left to determine their own destiny with. For all of those souls, good luck, and long lives, with my best wishes for your personal success and victory over the Borg Collective Social Media Brave New World Psychopathic assholes we few aware souls live amongst. All you other whiney bitches can go fuck yourselves with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire covered in flaming napalm for lube.

    Remember – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2018-08-15/supermarket-sadism-how-navigate-deadly-food-jungle

    • I personally think that going to restaurants is a worse problem than going to grocery stores. If a person stays as much as possible with fresh produce and one-ingredient packaged goods (canned or dried beans, peas, and grains for example), things work passably well. Dairy and meat products purchased should be organic because pesticides tend to “concentrate up” in the food chain. The emphasis on farmers’ markets misses this point.

      In the United States, restaurant food (especially fast food) is both way too large in quantity and too “energy dense” for most people. People who eat in start eating this food tend to see the large quantities and energy dense food as desirable. Of course, a person also has no idea what is in the restaurant food.

    • JesseJames says:

      If it is sold in a chain grocery store, it is factory food….not real food, factory food!

      • NikoB says:

        If you have reached the ripe old age of 60 eating whatever you like and you have enjoyed life then well done you have lived longer than the majority of human beings that have ever existed. Time to die.

  8. xabier says:

    The other day I saw for the first time whole fields full of solar panels (subsidies for landowners were very lucrative,and maybe still are, I’ve rather stopped reading about it) – the idea that they can be associated with anything ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ was palpably ludicrous.

    An extrusion of the industrial FF industrial economy, nothing more. Soon to be piles of junk.

    And, in this part of England, highly vulnerable to flooding: the fields are now below sea-level, having been eroded in the last 300 years. These ones were not on one of the few rises.

    If the main pumps ever stop their – constant – pumping, the solar fields here are finished.

    Smart move, Hom. Sap. !

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