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?

Change

Imagine being a politician today. Or actual any day. While you may have visions of power and control, I see a person who has anything but. Rather, I see a person who is trying to build consensus amongst voters and constituents so as to define a better direction. That is, they aim to choose a future rather than have the future choose. While so many seem to have wonderful ideals, the desire of the populace seems to be for greater ease and luxury no matter what the cost. And politicians have usually acknowledged this.

Now what does a politician do if the status quo looks ugly? If ease and luxury might be only temporary? A simple metric is the human population. This metric continues to increase exponentially. This is no surprise as humans have pretty well eliminated all natural predators. Our numbers will keep rising. Unless we acknowledge that there may be too many people, they will rise. And we may decide to act. But how many is too many? And what actions would a politician allow to change the status quo?

Another metric is the consumption of non-renewable resources. The consumption continues to increase for the simple reason that the number of people keeps increasing. If the effects of the consumption were negligible then there’s no problem. But there are effects. The greatest being called ‘climate change’. That is, exhaust from oxidation of non-renewables is changing the atmosphere. Which changes the weather. Yet our lifestyles rely upon non-renewable resources. Thus, we’d have to lower our lifestyles, our luxury, to reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources. Would a politician be able to build consensus to reduce lifestyles?

In simple words, with the acknowledgement that the status quo is untenable, a politician needs to enact change. They need to convince the populace, who hold the real power, that change is needed. And they need to introduce a tenable option. Without this, a politician is simply along for the ride. And their visions of power and control are illusory, briefly held in time.

A Freeze

Fatbergs

One of the worst jobs imagined is to work in the sewers of a city. All the detritus and waste of a civilization get flushed into them. Flushed to another problem for another time and place.

Sometimes though, things don’t get through. Such is the so-called ‘Fatberg‘. A congealed lump of mostly fat. Lodged in sewers throughout the world. A prime example is the Whitechapel Fatberg at 250-metres-long and 140 tonnes mass.

Fatbergs begin as waste. Material deemed worthless by the owner. Yet the Whitechapel Fatberg was successfully, partially turned into biodiesel (35MJ/L). A practical source of controlled energy. So what was once thought of as waste became an energy source.

Can our civilization afford to be cavalier about energy usage? Can our civilization afford to be cavalier about resource usage? We’re effectively living within a closed system. A finite supply of everything. Will our civilization be marked by how we flushed good things away?