Orderly Disorder

Humans have been rated as the most anti-entropic agent known. Perhaps ants could give them a run for their money. But humans have really excelled at filtering, separating, cleaning, sorting and re-arranging so as to bring a large amount of order to planet Earth. Or at least order according to the view of humans.

For example, humans, especially chemists, have figured out how to make marvellous structures. The Burj Khalifa is a prime example of an exacting mix of molecules and compounds so as to enable a structure for humans to live, thrive and profit. At an estimated cost of $1.5Billion, ever wonder how long it will continue providing the expected functions to humans? This is a solid example of humans using energy to create an ordered arrangement, i.e. negentropy.

Another example is Pont Morandi. This structure, at €3.8Billion, enabled over 25.5 million transits a year. Opened in 1967, this structure might be a case study in hubris as apparently, humans didn’t  precisely define adequate composition and shape of materials. Thus, after being called a failure in engineering due to high maintenance costs, the structure self-collapsed in 2018. Causing the death of 43 people. In result, humans used a tonne of explosives to blow up the remains of Pont Morandi. This is energy to design, build, maintain and then destroy this entropic arrangement. Do you wonder if the net energy worth of this structure is positive or negative? And, would the net entropy be positive for this bridge? Or, in the end, is it an example of humans pushing the overall surface state of the earth faster to a higher entropy?

Humans continue to create and construct. Yet few structures have stood the test of time as the pyramids of Khufu. Should we continue building structures based solely upon short term financial gain? Or, is there value in considering the endeavour’s net energy consumption and its effect on the Earth’s surface entropy; its slide to disorder? Will humans ever be sufficiently circumspect?

Water Lily
Water Lily

Growth

Growth is a great mantra for economies. Continual growth leads to advancing prosperity; even to the increase in individual wealth. And whether it’s due to nature or nurture, or both, most people prefer the excess caused by growth. And when people get what they prefer then they readily support the government. Thus government’s economists demand growth to appease the ratepayers. And the mantra spins on.

Subsuming to the mantra of growth has brought great prosperity to many people and many civilizations. But everyone knows that growth is limited. People can build only so many homes until there are not enough people to live in them. Japan is a case in point with a population with some of the longest life expectancies; but this expectancy may be instrumental in its ever decreasing population. Equally, there is only so much arable land; though a continual 2percent increase in crop production makes one wonder, “what is the limit?” And then there are the seas. Once imagined to be limitless, these wonders of Earth have proved to have boundaries. While fish capture rates have maintained a steady value of about 85 million tonnes annually, aquaculture has boomed to provide another 85 million tonnes. Will the mantra strike reality?

While people have certainly met their natural goal of maximizing their progeny, is it possible that they are limiting the potential of their progeny?  People may get smarter and invent new ways to garner energy, to grow food and to construct abodes. Now does a mantra of continual growth achieve the best future for the progeny? Or could economists enable our progeny to sing to better?

flowers
Les Fleurs

The Petrol Station

For the privileged few, there’s nothing more carefree than driving along on a big, empty, wide open highway. You aim for the horizon and you’re not too worried about whether you get there or not. Roll down the window, let the breeze blow through your hair and relax as all your worries disappear.

Relax until the dashboard displays a light that you’ve never seen before. It can’t be, it’s the big red Low Fuel warning light. It pulsates steadily. Dimming a little as the sun shines on it then brightening as the dashboard re-enters the shade. With it, somehow the horizon becomes much less inviting and a petrol station, any petrol station, would be gratefully discovered. The petrol station, an oasis from which to fill the car’s tank and perhaps add a bit more to your own tank, your stomach. But the map display on the dashboard shows you that the closest petrol station is a few hundred kilometres away. Your drive is no longer worry free.

While the above is a simple little bit of fiction, it is analogous to humans on Earth. We’re driving along a technological and cultural highway. But where the car in the story consumes the same rate of petrol, humans are consuming more fuel and faster. Each and every day. There are more humans. And each of them want more and better services. We can change our story to reflect this. The change is that once the Low Fuel Warning light appears then you accelerate, which of course burns fuel at a greater rate. But this higher rate doesn’t get you any greater a chance of reaching the petrol station.

One option is to lighten the load in the car. This will allow the driver to go further, would it be far enough? An analogy to this is reflected by the recent UN report stating that over 1 million species are nearing extinction due to humankind.  That’s one eighth of the total. Without those creatures then there’s more energy available for humans. Ever wonder what the Earth will be like once those creatures are gone? Ever wonder if driving a car aimlessly down a highway is truly carefree?

La Fleur

Whales

The industrial revolution introduced machines into our culture. These mechanical servants worked non-stop to perform perfunctory tasks. And we were happy. But whales of the time weren’t happy. As it turned out, whales were a necessary ingredient to keep the machines running. Or more precisely, the whale’s bodies ensured the success of the industrial revolution.

Did you ever think that animals were a repository of energy? Most aren’t as land animals typically keep minimal stores of energy. That is they have little fat. Whales however do have lots of fat. Fat to make candles, lubricating oil, lamp oil and such. While hunting whales had been going on for tens of thousands of years, only during the industrial revolution were humans capable and eager to make whale hunting a lucrative industry.

Using recent records, we see that from 1900 to 2015 humans killed an estimated 3.3 million whales. That’s about 138e6 tonnes of flesh with fat containing about 5.1e17 Joules of energy. Many more were killed in the centuries before. Some species of whales are making a population recovery. Most aren’t. Maybe their numbers will return in a few hundred years. If people let them live.

Our culture has moved past the industrial revolution. This is good news for the remaining whales. But think of the whale industry as another example of humans consuming natural resources. With the result being that the resources remain depleted.  We can’t return to industrial scale whaling as there aren’t enough whales. Now expand this example and consider, “What happens to machines and our culture if we deplete all readily available energy resources?”

Deep blue
Shoreline

Venezuela, Again

If you’re reading this then chances are you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or staring at a small screen of a cellular. In either case, both these electronic marvels enable humans to share information and knowledge nearly instantly. And some would say to the benefit for all.

But the computer and the cellular’s utility results from an extensive power distribution system. A system that gets power from many ways, converts it to electricity then enables the end-user to apply the power as they want.

Across most of the world people have been conditioned to accept the provisioning of electricity. Many places even institute a legal requirement for landlords to continue providing electricity no matter what the renter does. This reinforces the conditioning.

But what if the provisioning fails? As occurred recently in Venezuela. Venezuela is a country graced with an abundance of power supplies. Hydroelectric sources provide about 117TWh. It also has the largest proven crude oil reserves at 301 billion barrels. Yet the country’s power supply failed with 19 of 23 states in blackout conditions including Caracas, the capital. With the absence of power, information doesn’t flow. Nor do refrigerators keep perishables cool or hospital lights guide doctors. Venezuela includes 30 million people who may have to resort to a hunter-gatherer status given the failure of providing electricity. But can they survive given their conditioned dependence upon electricity.

And what about the rest of us? Can we survive without the marvels of this electronic age? Will we keep growing in intelligence in wisdom even without ready power? And is Venezuela a reckoning of things to come?