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, I wonder whether you know about this

    http://theconversation.com/how-indonesias-1965-1966-anti-communist-purge-remade-a-nation-and-the-world-48243

    In 1965-1966, General Suharto killed all the communists in Indonesia. Nobody kept records so nobody knows how many of them died, but it is at least 500,000, probably many more since the killing method is usually simply killing all the members of communist groups at once.

    It might have been cruel, but it did keep Indonesia safe from Communists. Something like that will be used to maintain Civilization, if necessary.

    Collapse can be delayed by much longer than what you think.

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Rumour had it that the land we owned in Bali … which was overlooking a ravine with 3 rivers… was where many bodies were dumped during this purge….

      Check out this excellent movie

      • Ohadi Nacnud says:

        Mel Gibson. The well known hat er of the sweJ. No wonder FE likes it.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          If I recall mel did not say he hated the tribe.. he said that they controlled the media and hollywood…

          Of course they do … and they also control the reserve currency … they own the Fed… and run the world.

          Fixed it for ya Mel.

  2. Baby Doomer says:

    Comrade Grimes’ mission is complete. Another billionaire destroyed.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-grimes-unfollowed-each-other-social-media-2018-8

    • Davidin100millionbilliontrillionzillionyears says:

      Amber Heard must have weakened him greatly…

      Grimes added to the insanity…

      who’s next?

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Oh my!!! This surely will be front page on all MSM>.. it is HUGE!!!

      Tesla CEO Elon Musk and indie pop star Grimes no longer follow each other on Instagram.

      Musk unfollowed Grimes on Twitter early Sunday.

      • Jay says:

        I still have no idea why Elon Musk and the Kardashians grab headlines all the time.

        Seriously. I am completely baffled.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          I believe that they pay PR firms big money — and PR firms have the connections with the MSM (i.e. they pay them… take them to the Super Bowl etc…) to get the exposure — also the MSM needs content — even shite like this … because the masses love it

  3. Baby Doomer says:

    French bridges ‘at risk of collapse’

    More than 800 road bridges in France are at risk of collapsing within a few years, according to a survey carried out for the Transport Ministry that has raised alarm following the Genoa tragedy.

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/18/french-bridges-risk-collapse/

  4. doomphd says:

    just imagine, that face and body used to adorn boxes of Wheaties breakfast cereal, the breakfast of champions.

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Those boxes are probably valuable collectors items now!

      I wonder if Bruce will wake up one day and look in the mirror and think ‘what the f789 have I done!!!’

      • doomphd says:

        medically, it might be hard to restore him/her to his former male state, so let’s hope he/she’s satisfied with the transformative results.

    • Tim Groves says:

      Just goes to show what too many anabolic steroids can do.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        coming off the roids and hgh…. can really mess with the hormones….

      • Fast Eddy says:

        US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”.

        Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.

        https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/aug/19/bad-news-is-were-dying-earlier-in-britain-down-to-shit-life-syndrome

        • Of course, it looks like education and training is a way out, but it really isn’t. First, this education and training has a cost. Second, giving more education and training to people doesn’t meant that there will actually be jobs for these folks that pay very well.

          Adding more education may somewhat help those who gain this education, but not as much as they expect, because the oversupply of people with every degree reduces its benefit. Instead, the education often acts more like a high-priced screening device that employers can use to decide which candidate is best suited for a relatively low paying jobs. And then there is the issue of paying for the degree.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            If I were 20ish… I’d stay in school for as long as possible … I’d have PHDs in basket weaving and transgender transition counselling …. and various other areas…..nothing too strenuous (what would be the point)

            Living large off of student loans and grants… that I would never pay back….

  5. MG says:

    With the rising prices of electricity, the recently built natural gas power plant Malzenice in Slovakia has not been dismantled, as was planned when the prices of electricity went down, but sold to the regional energy distribution company. Now it is going to be used as the back-up for the nuclear power plants, the article says.

    https://slovensko.hnonline.sk/1796380-zse-ozivili-zakliate-malzenice-investicia-za-400-milionov-je-opat-v-prevadzke

  6. Fast Eddy says:

    And here I was thinking justice would not be done until BAU ended….

    I enjoy when bad things… happen to bad people…. it so seldom happens

    Today … is a great day!

    • Rodster says:

      Bah, I bet nothing will happen to her. The press will either ignore it, make excuses for her or won’t cover it. Different sets of rules and standards for certain people.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Nah… this is on the home page of the NYT…. and all over various US and UK publications…. and spreading like wildfire….

        And she’s not Teflon Trump….

        She is finished.

        You don’t survive this

        I understand there is also a photo of the 37 year old in bed with the boy …. on the NYT… (I dont pay to subscribe to that trash so cannot grab it)

        Schadenfreude… is a wonderful drug

  7. Yoshua says:

    The universe is made of photons and space (in my mind).

    The photon is an energy particle, it has mass, gravity and produces an electromagnetic force.

    The photon appears in different frequencies:

    As high frequency gamma and x-ray high energy particles.
    As medium frequency light particles.
    As low frequency micro and radio wave particles.

    A photon that is given a negative charge turns into an electron and a positive charge into a proton. The protons then make all the atoms, stars and galaxies.

    Black holes eat stars and crushes atoms, protons and electrons and turn into massive black photon stars with massive gravity from where the photons can’t escape. Only photons in the gamma ray frequency can access enough of their own energy to escape black holes, or black photon stars.

    Humans have actually reached quite far, now we just have to learn to master the photon.

    Empty space…now…that’s a weird creation.

  8. Harry McGibbs says:

    Bloomberg wondering if the emerging markets crisis is going to hurt oil prices as it did in ’98:

    “For more than two decades, OPEC has tried to avoid repeating a mistake that cost it dearly. In November 1997, at a meeting in Jakarta, Saudi Arabia convinced fellow oil producers to boost output, ignoring a crisis brewing in emerging markets.

    “The output increase came at the worst possible time. What in November 1997 looked like a hiccup, by mid-1998 was a full emerging-markets crisis spreading to Russia and Brazil. Global oil demand growth slowed, in part because of an unusually warm winter in the northern hemisphere. Benchmark oil prices fell below $10 a barrel, the lowest since the 1973-74 oil embargo.”

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-08-18/emerging-markets-turmoil-revives-a-dreaded-old-opec-ghost

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