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. Baby Doomer says:

    Global warming policy: Is population left out in the cold? (Bongaarts 2018) Science

    • Someone actually mentions that population growth is a problem!

      • Chrome Mags says:

        In the midnight the hour the human race demanded, more, more, more
        With a rebel yell we all scream for more, more, more
        Always going full on for ever greater expansion, what do we want?
        We want vast amounts of everything, ya know, we want more, more, more
        With a rebel yell, we extract billions of tons of more, more, more
        With an aggressive raging insistence we procreate
        More, more, more!!!

      • Fast Eddy says:

        I am fond of saying to Green Groopies (to shut them up) who criticize me for using plastic bags and coal and generally not giving a f789 about the environment because of TINA…..

        Well… there are nearly 100 million nett new people on the earth again this year … and there will be more next year…. and they all want food and clothing and homes and cars (and plastic an electricity and petrol)….

        So what is the point?

        I generally do not mention that I have no kids and they do …. so I am actually The King of Green.

    • Fast Eddy says:

      And of course let’s not forget

      GGG WWWW Ho ax:

    • Not the kind of publicity that Musk would want!

      • Gregory Machala says:

        Tesla admits it cannot survive without gov’t electric car rebates/subsidies. I think the original idea was that the rebates would help kick-start electric car production. Well it is looking more and more like the electric car ubopia is not going to be kick-started with rebates. I doubt the solar rebates are kick-starting “renewable” energy either.:

        • Rodster says:

          No surprise, this is all happening to Tesla. We have been in agreement at least of us that alternative energy and alternative energy products would not exist if not for Govt funding. But the green energy crowd still expects solar, wind or whatever or flavor of alternative energy hopium will come in on a white horse and save us all.

          How in the hell is alternative energy going to save the day when Tesla can’t make it without handouts from the US Govt? How in the hell is alternative energy going to save the day when the global economic system collapses from too much debt?

          I bet the green energy groupies never considered or asked these questions. Nah, according to them it’ll all work out and in the near future we’ll have cheap, clean limitless energy.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            The common refrain is ‘You’ve got to start somewhere’

            • Rodster says:

              As Billy Preston once wrote in one of his songs: “Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin'”

              Maybe the green groupies will connect the dots someday. It’s possible they’ll realize their error as they watch spent fuel rods exploding in the distance.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              I am unable to grasp why Green Groopies are unable to connect the dots re: Elon Musk…

              He is saving the world yet he is attempting to create a business that takes people into space (using enormous amounts of FF) for joy rides….

              Ah right… humans are f789ing stewpid… the MoT must laugh at how easy it is to lead them around by the nose

  2. Fast Eddy says:

    Spending at U.S. restaurants surged over the past three months by the most on record.

    As Bloomberg reports, sales at food-service and drinking establishments rose 1.3% in July to $61.6 billion, the Commerce Department reported this week, almost catching up to the total spent on buying food and beverages from grocery stores.

    That brought the three-month annualized gain to 25.3 percent, the fastest pace in figures going back to 1992…

    Three major factors may be driving this regime shift in spending:

    First, Americans are eating out more and spending their extra cash from tax cuts on dining out (consumer confidence is elevated and the fiscal stimulus may be having an effect on the data);

    Second, major restaurant companies have recently hiked menu prices to keep up with rising food costs, higher minimum wages, and rent costs (the retail figures are adjusted for seasonal variation but not for inflation); and

    Third, across the industry, restaurants are increasingly pushing delivery services such as DoorDash to attract diners.

    • Eating out, especially in fast food places, is the little indulgence that those at the bottom of the wage pyramid can afford more, especially if they are now too busy to cook.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        It is interesting to see the trend reverse — restaurant spending was declining…

        Not sure how this can be happening with wages stagnant/declining….

        Then we have all forms of freight charging higher….

        Fake numbers?

        Fed taking some sort of action that we are not aware of?

        Maybe related to the slashing of corporate taxes?

        • Rodster says:

          “Not sure how this can be happening with wages stagnant/declining….”

          Eating at fast food restaurants can sometimes be cheaper than making your own meals. For example here in SW Florida we have a fast food burger chain that sells a cheeseburger, fries, large drink with refills and an apple pie for $3. So I do agree with Gail and low wage earners gravitate to those types of deals. Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King all have value meals. At Burger King they sell 10pc chicken nuggets for $1.69

          • Fast Eddy says:

            Right … but the spend was declining overall… and now it is increasing….

          • Rufus says:

            3 USD is really cheap! I checked and the average price for the same standard menu in France is 8 EUR so 9 USD… My guess is poor people in France are less poor than in US so those fast food restaurant companies can charge more.

            • Rodster says:

              It’s all down to competition as they are not the only ones selling low cost fast food meals. Wendy’s fast food chain countered that with 4 items for $5. On any given street you can easily see 10-20 fast food restaurants.

            • suicide food in more ways than one then

            • Growing food is cheap oil the United States because of all of the mechanization and little human labor. Farmer today take down fences, so that they can plow over hills and valleys in an unending patterns. (Erosion, who cares?) They use huge machines, often only rented for a short time. Some of these machines can be operated 24 hours a day, using GPS for guidance. Because there is so much low-priced food, restaurants of all kinds sell over-sized servings, so that people will think that they are getting value from what they buy. Pretty much as cheap as food from the grocery store–except it really isn’t very good for a person to eat.

  3. Fast Eddy says:

    We are used to seeing vanilla all around us – in candles, cupcakes and creme brulees. But if you’re eating something vanilla-flavoured or smelling something vanilla-scented – it’s probably artificial.

    Scientists have been making synthetic vanillin – the compound that gives vanilla its aroma – since the 19th Century. It has been extracted from coal, tar, rice bran, wood pulp and even cow dung.

    Today, the vast majority of synthetic vanillin comes from petrochemicals.

    • My mother followed these things years ago, when I was growing up. She used to tell me that the chemical formula was the same, so there was no difference. Just get the artificial substitute.

      I have been buying the real thing, partly because with the tiny amount I use, the difference between artificial and real in price is non-existent. Also, my father grew up in Madagascar.

    • doomphd says:

      very nice graphical presentation. they should do another one on palm oil plantations, it’s green, don’cha know.

  4. Third World person says:

    Poland, the Next Turkey? Spotlight on the Zloty and External Debt

    Emerging markets have taken it on the chin. Is Poland next?
    Murray Gunn, Head of Global Research at Elliott Wave International, asks “Is Poland the next Turkey?”
    Our outlook for the Polish Zloty suggests that Poland’s developing authoritarianism is likely to accelerate.

    In case you have been living on Mars over the last few years and have missed what is going on, people around the world are becoming increasingly angry. This is especially true in the periphery of Europe, where countries like Turkey and Hungary are ruled by governments with an intolerance for people who disagree with them. After long negative trends in social mood, the so-called “populist revolution” has also resulted in the election of governments in Italy and Poland that have radical agendas. In Poland’s case, one policy of the ruling Law and Justice Party (nothing sinister about that name, eh) is to overhaul the judicial system by forcing judges to retire early. This, the European Union argues, is aimed at increasing political influence in the Polish legal system. On Monday, the EU stepped up threats of legal action against the Polish government which remains intransigent on the matter. It’s looking very probable that Poland is on the road to becoming internationally isolated.

    Indeed, the chart of the Polish zloty versus the Euro suggests that Poland may be in for the same treatment as Turkey. A multi-year consolidation ended at the beginning of this year. It looks like EUR-PLN is entering a strong advance which should see the pair explode higher. Be prepared for that to be accompanied with a further breakdown in international relations with Warsaw.

    Poland is gonna collapse like turkey

    • Duncan Idaho says:

      “Poland is gonna collapse like turkey”
      With its current political outlook, let us hope so.

    • Ed says:

      Poland should join the Russia/China/India axis.

      • Duncan Idaho says:

        Poland is against Russia/China, but may find a friend in India.
        Need to get on a similar page..

    • name says:

      I don’t like current Polish government, but PLN is 1.5% lower to the EUR than 5 years ago. Also current accout deficit was 0% of GDP in 2017, and is projected to be -0.9% this year, and Poland has big capital account surplus by EU transfers. This is a made up story.

  5. Chinese AP1000 reaches full power operation – World Nuclear News

    This is the same kind of plant that is being built in the state of Georgia, in the USA. According to the article, “The unit became the world’s first AP1000 to achieve grid connection and power generation.”

    Also, it says,

    The unit has been undergoing gradual power ascension testing until all testing is safely and successfully completed at 100% power. Sanmen 1 is scheduled to enter commercial operation by the end of this year. New nuclear power reactors in China are usually considered to be in commercial operation upon completion of a demonstration test run of 168 hours of continuous operation at full power.

  6. From WSJ EPA Is Set to Roll Back Restrictions on Coal-Burning Power Plants

    The proposed new rules, which the Environmental Protection Agency plans is expected to release within days, would be the latest in a series of reversals of policies the Obama administration adopted to slow climate change. It would replace the agency’s so-called Clean Power Plan for the electricity business with regulations that cede power to states . . .

    The Trump administration proposal would have to be submitted for a public rule-making process before taking effect. It would apply to the power industry at large, but is firmly targeted at coal. . .

    The proposed rules are designed to address what many conservatives and coal-industry supporters criticized as overreach by the Obama administration determined to force coal plants to run less frequently and close more quickly.

    • I expect that eventually, pretty much all power will be given back to the states, including Medicare (healthcare for the elderly), Medicaid (healthcare for the poor, mostly with the states now), Unemployment insurance (mostly with the states now), and Social Security (wage replacement for the elderly).

      The problem we reach is that it becomes impossible for the federal government to collect enough funds for all of the programs that everyone would like. The most palatable way of getting rid of them is to give them to smaller political entities.

      Eventually, if the US government doesn’t collapse, it will shrink away to nothing ness.

      • Artleads says:

        Whatever transferring of power needs to be done could be started immediately in very small increments.

        • I think that the proposed EPA rule change is a step in this direction.

          The insurance industry has always been regulated by the states. Their view was, “It is better to be regulated by 50 little entities, rather than a big one with real power to change things.” There is a Federal Government Flood Program, but that has always been a major giveaway program, indirectly encouraging citizens to build in flood prone areas.

          • Artleads says:

            Doesn’t sound too bad. Like my latest dream where there’s a nearby fire that gets scarily nearer. I’m telling everyone how serious it is and to get away. Then I look harder at the fire scene that is almost next door and there are some burly blue collar guys resting their weight on one leg like everything was under control. And I felt a little sheepish.

      • MG says:

        The more entities are there, the more debt can be distributed, so the whole picture does not look so bad.

    • Fast Eddy says:

      All Hail The Great TRUMP!

      Did I mention that I fill cardboard wine boxes with coal … and shove them through the gaping maw of the Rayburn in a single go? I think I’ll have a second coffee… and stuff a box in there now… the Rayburn must eat!

  7. Baby Doomer says:

    In nature, the over – extension of a population upon a resource which diminishes is well known, and the results tend to be disastrous..


    • doomphd says:

      St. Mathews Island deer: ran out of stockpile of slow-growing lichens. they were gentle herbivores.

      Humans on Planet Earth: running out of slow-accumulating fossil fuels. they are vicious, omnivorous predators.

  8. Baby Doomer says:

    London workers are queuing up for free food because they can’t afford to eat

    • Fast Eddy says:

      If what they were handing out looked good… and the queue was short… I’d get right in there

  9. Grey Enlightenment blasts Peter Turchin off.

    Again, I have said many times that Turchin’s model does not take account of the recent tech advances, which can overcome many of his points. For example, in the old days it was not possible from the center to know what the periphery was doing, but now the activities done in the periphery can quickly be reported, analyzed and dealt with within a few hours or minutes. Drones are everywhere.

    I am sorry, but collapse in America can be delayed forever by exporting it to other countries. Turchin and tainter had good ideas, but tech have made their ideas pieces of trash.

    • Davidin100millionbilliontrillionzillionyears says:

      “I am sorry, but collapse in America can be delayed forever by exporting it to other countries.”

      that’s a big dose of hyperbole in your use of the word “forever”…

      you must know the obvious, that nothing continues forever…

      yes, Creeping Collapse can be delayed from reaching The Core…

      but sooner (2020s) or later (2030s) it will arrive…


      Creeping Collapse is unstoppable…

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