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Energy ::

A friend recently pointed me to A Physicist Solves the City. It’s fascinating in quite a number of ways, but this sobering part stuck with me in the days after reading the article:

“A human being at rest runs on 90 watts,” he says. “That’s how much power you need just to lie down. And if you’re a hunter-gatherer and you live in the Amazon, you’ll need about 250 watts. That’s how much energy it takes to run about and find food. So how much energy does our lifestyle [in America] require? Well, when you add up all our calories and then you add up the energy needed to run the computer and the air-conditioner, you get an incredibly large number, somewhere around 11,000 watts. Now you can ask yourself: What kind of animal requires 11,000 watts to live? And what you find is that we have created a lifestyle where we need more watts than a blue whale. We require more energy than the biggest animal that has ever existed. That is why our lifestyle is unsustainable. We can’t have seven billion blue whales on this planet. It’s not even clear that we can afford to have 300 million blue whales.”

Then on Monday I came across Energy Costs and the Economy (via The Big Picture). The author explains and diagrams the “biophysical economy,” using this model to explain our current situation:

This figure shows the situation of the biophysical economy subsequent to the increase in energy costs to extract energy (larger red arrow feeding back into the energy extraction process) and the shrinkage or depletion of the fossil fuel energy resources (e.g. sometime after peak oil). The net energy available to run the rest of the economy is shrunk so that asset production as well as biomass production (after shrinkage in food production) must decline in response. Worse yet, the reduction of net energy flows means losing the ability to maintain current stocks of biomass (increased death rate) and assets.

This is what is staring us in the face right now. We have reached, by all reasonable indications, the peak of oil production in total barrels pumped. We seem to be on what is called a bumpy plateau rather than a definitive peak owing to the response of the economy (contraction or recession) that lowers demand for energy and thus slows the pumping rate temporarily. As the economy has seemed to pick up growth momentum (don’t try to sell that to those whose jobs went missing or lost their homes to foreclosure of course) the speculation of higher demand and a non-ability to actually increase production over what the likely peak number was appears to be elevating the futures price for oil and thus we find ourselves back at the 2008 situation once again.

In this context, President Obama’s State of the Union speech struck me strangely (I heard about the first half hour of it). It seemed that he had some awareness of the gravity of the energy situation and the slow-motion crisis that is unfolding. But he didn’t talk about that crisis at all; he spoke with what came across to me as some urgency, of goals like wanting 80% of the U.S.'s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030. I don’t know how practical and achievable this goal is, but the benefits would be not only economic. We would also reduce carbon emissions and take a step towards world peace (fewer military adventures for control of oil). That seems worth a try.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011, 12:39 AM PST
<< Unstoppable 2011 > January Obama's Sputnik Moment >>

1 comment

  1. Awesome post.  So succinctly put.

    Mark Lacas, Wednesday, 26 January 2011, 12:59 AM PST

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