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The Way Is Shut

By Tom Murphy

22 February, 2012
Do The Math

When I first approached the topic of societal energy in 2004, I became aware for the first time that our energy future was not in the bag, and proceeded to explore alternative after alternative to judge the viability and potential pitfalls of various options. I have retraced my steps in Do the Math posts, exposing the scales at which different energy sources might contribute, and the practical complexities involved. My spooky campfire version of the story, a la Tolkien: The Way is Shut.

Alright, I’m overstating things a bit. The good news is that there do exist energy flows and sources that qualify as abundant or at least potent. However, many of the alternatives represent ways to produce electricity, which applies only to about one-third of our current energy demand. The immediate threat is therefore the short term liquid fuels crunch we will see when the global petroleum decline commences within the decade.

In this post, I will reflect on the lessons we learn after having characterized the various alternatives to fossil fuels. There will still be some tidying-up to do on energy alternatives not treated thus far, but by and large the nature of content on Do the Math is about to pivot toward addressing the question “What can we do now?” In some sense, a common thread so far has been: “easier said than done,” or “don’t count on that technology saving our bacon.” I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. We’re boxed in. Okay, the exits aren’t really closed: they’re just not as wide open as they would need to be for me to be complacent. So now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.

Summary Matrix

A few weeks back, I organized assessments of fossil fuel alternatives into a scoring matrix to provide—at a glance—a sense for the pluses and minuses of each option. We saw from this exercise that most alternatives are inferior replacements for fossil fuels in one way or another (although superior in terms of carbon dioxide emission). We also saw that transportation will be the hard part. Here is a repeat of the matrix (click to enlarge). See the post for details and commentary, or click here for the colorblind-friendly version.

My Biggest Surprise

The raft of comments following the summary post highlighted something that for me was unexpected. Even though my primary messages were that alternatives fail to stack up to the familiar benefits of fossil fuels, and that transportation is particularly challenging to cover, I seem to have stirred a hornets’ nest in ranking nuclear options well below solar. I saw many comments arguing for nuclear’s superiority over solar energy. I never appreciated the apparent rivalry. So that was interesting. It seemed that nuclear enthusiasts were too perturbed by my admittedly simplistic ranking scheme to appreciate the larger points. I’ll bet this tendency extends to enthusiasts of all stripes, and imagine that had I inverted the rankings, the solar enthusiasts would have come out swinging.

To some degree, this is worrisome to me. If we see alternative energy as a competition, we may all lose. Let’s fight the fossil fuels, not one another; get started transforming our future; let’s clamor for funding for all of our viable alternative approaches—each offering unique advantages (and, yes, disadvantages).

Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

How do we respond to our looming energy predicament?

Picture yourself in an jet airliner. The captain makes an announcement that the airplane is going to make an emergency landing (something about running out of fossil fuels), but that it should be a smooth glide to a landing on the flat prairie below. The professional flight attendants calmly explain how the exit doors and slides work. A quick calculation in your Do-the-Math head says that eight functioning exits and 200 passengers means 25 passengers per exit, and complete exodus within a minute if passengers can get out at one every two seconds. Not bad.

Knowledge of the exits brings peace of mind. If the landing is indeed smooth, no problem. But if the meeting with the ground is abrupt, what looked to be good options during the calm order preceding the crash no longer seem viable. The door ahead on the left has been wedged and is inoperative. The door opposite has fire immediately outside. You can’t see well enough through the smoke to tell if the doors ahead of those two are viable, but the panicked voices in that direction do not bode well. It seems there must be some door near the back that’s working, given the kinds of shouts you hear in that direction. But the press of people and the various stupid decisions you witness complicate matters (why is that idiot trying to carry out his suitcase?!—the strap is caught on the seat arm and causing a blockage in the aisle).

Analogies are never perfect, and this one is a touch on the over-dramatic side. Obviously, the “exits” here are solar, wind, nuclear fission, hydroelectricity, geothermal, biofuels, wave, tidal, etc. The fact that we can rattle off a lot of names for alternative energy sources comforts some people enough to skip the precaution of guaranteeing the viability of those exits when they are needed. Indeed, the sheer numbers are ample for solar, fission (especially breeding from thorium), ocean thermal, and nuclear fusion for that matter.

Yet the numbers are only part of the story. On top of this is a layer of practicality. I don’t care how much deuterium ordinary water contains, if fusion is not technically viable when we need a large-scale rescue. Solar and wind are intermittent and require storage solutions that we seem not to have at adequate scale (wishful thinking suggests they may complement each other’s intermittency at scale). Ocean thermal is hampered by a long list of practical/logistical impediments. A next-generation nuclear fission push is among the most promising, but it’s not here today—and until it is proven to be effective and economical, wisdom suggests that we not count it as certain. After all this, we are still left with a mismatch between the type of energy we need (for transportation) and the type we can most easily make (electricity).

When the descent stage of petroleum hits and production drops by several percent per year, the economic shocks and global reaction will be significant, and we will be scrambling to find our exits—only then to realize that nothing is as easy as it seemed during times of surplus, and that all new infrastructure efforts require the very energy that is in short supply (the Energy Trap). It’s true that shortage of one form of energy does not mean shortage of all types of energy. A liquid fuels shortage won’t directly translate into electricity shortage, for instance. But virtually every facet of our modern society requires our transportation capabilities to remain intact. Without that, virtually everything becomes hard.

In much the same way, kidney failure does not directly impact the function of hands or legs—yet you are unlikely to find someone suffering from kidney failure out in the garden yanking up weeds. Systemic failure is a tough nut.

As in the airplane, the nearest exit may be behind us: meaning that we may do well to consider a simpler lifestyle that may strike some as moving backwards.

Conservatism and Asymmetric Risk

I will disclose that politically I am a registered Independent with both liberal and conservative sympathies, having voted for presidential candidates across the political spectrum. But when I say conservative, I mean it in the traditional sense—not by today’s ideological definition of the term. Conservatism to me means taking a low-risk approach to our future: not gambling the prosperity of future generations on uncertainties of today. Conservatism to me means conserving resources, conserving energy, balancing budgets (raising taxes is certainly a viable option in my book), and having a well-thought plan for the future that also acknowledges uncertainties. I have been tempted to make a bumper sticker asking ideologically-identified conservatives: “What have you conserved for me lately?” But alas, I don’t drive my truck enough to make the effort worth my time.

I also find that science breeds traditional conservatism into its practitioners: we dare not publish wild claims that are not backed up by careful research, experimental confirmation, repeatability, etc. It’s not a perfect institution, but—holy cow—does it work surprisingly well given that imperfect humans are behind it all!

So my tendency to resist the “hopium” of future energy technologies as our salvation is a reflection of this conservatism. Imagine that I issue the following statement:

“The near future introduces monumental resource challenges to which I see no obvious solution. Unless we devote an unprecedented amount of attention to this problem, we risk overshoot, collapse, and loss of all the knowledge we’ve worked so hard to acquire.”

To which someone counters with:

“This view is unjustified. We have plenty of viable options in unconventional fossil fuels, thorium, solar, space resources, ultimately fusion, and other ideas to boot. And let’s not forget the human brain: an inexhaustible resource. We’ll always figure our way out of a fix—once the price is right—and the future will be more amazing than you can imagine. You’re only setting yourself up to be as much a laughingstock as Malthus.”

Okay. I am not at all unfamiliar with this reaction—frequently represented in Do the Math comments. First, I firmly believe that Malthus will ultimately be proven right that growth collides with finite resources so that growth must stop. His timing was off because he did not see fossil fuels coming, and I could likewise be accused of not seeing the next big wave of energy that will wash over us and “kick the ladder” of fossil fuels out from under us—a compelling notion, to be sure. But mathematical and thermodynamic arguments alone portend the end of growth in a finite system. Scientists will not disagree. The very first Do the Math posts address this. Confined to Earth, we boil ourselves in a little over 400 years on a 2% energy growth trajectory.

That said, in the nearer term (this century), I might be foolish to worry so much about our energy future on our current trajectory. We may develop suitable substitutes to fossil fuels in a smooth and timely way (if I can ignore concerns over the fact that we can’t seem to take care of our gerbil, while pining for a pony).

So here’s the thing. What if I’m wrong to be worried? Or what if my imaginary critic is wrong? Which is worse? If I advocate a path of restraint and careful transition to a possibly lower-energy future and I am ultimately shown to be wrong about the limits we face, what’s the damage? In this scenario, we’ve stabilized our system into something approximating sustainability. If we learn later that we have more resources available, we can make the choice to spend them profligately, use them sparingly, or ignore them. But we do so from a position of stability. If, on the other hand, the critic convinces us that the future is up, up, up, and we don’t take resource limits seriously then their being wrong is disastrous because we charge into overshoot, overextension, hit resource limits hard, and run a serious risk of societal collapse.

It’s a classic asymmetric risk problem. Believe me when I say that I’m happy to be wrong about the seriousness of our predicament. And if I thought that the scenario I paint had less than a 1% chance of transpiring, I could go along with the dismissals and find other ways to spend my time. I happen to perceive the likelihood of failure to be significantly higher than this. If true, then prudence demands that we assume that pursuit of business-as-usual will not prevent collapse—even if this view is ultimately understood to be an overreaction. For similar reasons, we buy fire insurance and flood insurance for our homes despite very low odds of disaster.

One of my most compelling pieces of empirical evidence that we are at risk of collapse is the degree to which most folks I run into can’t entertain collapse as a serious possibility. In fact, I usually feel like such a kook even suggesting it that I rarely put it “out there” in casual interactions—even when relevant to the conversation. Usually, time does not allow conveyance of the extensive background that is necessary to lend credibility to such a statement. Look how many words I have spilled (about 100,000) in Do the Math to justify my concerns.

In the face of serious resource challenges, I would hope to see more attention given to a high-stakes loss/collapse scenario. The opposite of attention is inattention, and that’s not going to help mitigate the problem.

Differentiating Opinion from Wisdom

I only fell into this “limits” camp because practically every time I performed quantitative analyses on this, that, or the other alternative energy proposal, I came up disappointed. I really did want the pleasure of personal discovery that we have an obvious path forward. I am delighted by the abundance of solar energy input to the planet. I am reassured by the vastness of thermal energy in the oceans and crust. I am tentatively excited about the vast energy represented by uranium in the oceans and by thorium using functional molten salt reactors. I truly do see these as positive lights in the darkness.

Yet over and over, quantitative analysis knocks out many of the “exciting” ideas we hear about in the sensationalized media world. Already, this is a damaging blow to our collective perception that solutions abound. But the quantitative analysis does turn up a few gems that have the numbers behind them. Is this enough to allay my worries? Obviously not, or I would be merrily spending my time in ways other than writing a time-consuming blog on top of a very demanding research/teaching job.

Why am I stubbornly unconvinced by my own computations that show a few exit doorways lit up through the smoke? All I can offer is that I draw on my hunches as an experimental scientist. In that capacity, I build stuff that works. To do this, I have to be practical. I have to have a “spidey-sense” of what things are likely to succeed or fail—sometimes folding in political factors as well. I clearly don’t find all ideas to be impractical, or I would never have rushed headlong into the many projects that I have pursued.

I have on occasion found myself challenged about specific choices I made in designing an instrument by folks without instrument-building experience. Wouldn’t it have been better to choose a different size/value for X system? Theoretically, sure—if only narrowly considering one particular aspect. But I had to balance that choice against ten other competing considerations that are often difficult to articulate or even recall on the spot. Then I remember that the person asking the question has not personally experienced the compromises of building a complex instrument that works.

Likewise in imagining our future path. A complex, interrelating series of considerations will steer us one way or another. My hunch is that human nature, political realities, economics (including economic hardship) combined with technical shortcomings of alternatives will get in the way of our shiny future. I would like to be convinced that this isn’t the case so I can stop worrying and go full-force on my experimental physics career, but the arguments for why things will be alright often strike me as narrow or simplistic. “It’s obvious: we’ll go to space where resources are unlimited.” “You’re forgetting something very important: human ingenuity—an unlimited resource.” “More sun hits the Earth in an hour than we use in a year: it’s obvious we’ll solve this problem.” “We have enough fuel sitting in nuclear waste pools to power us for millennia.” “Peak oil will not be a problem because we have tons more hydrocarbons in the ground beyond conventional petroleum.” You get the picture: a key idea that will make everything work out. It has the same ring as “Home prices in San Diego can never go down because it is such a desirable place to live,” which I ignored in 2005 in favor of data and more complex analyses.

Any argument/rebuttal that starts with “It’s simple,” or “It’s obvious,” or something along those lines is more likely to fall in the foolish camp than the wisdom camp. Perhaps it is my experience dealing with multi-faceted complexity that draws me toward nuance and hedging and makes me wary of simple black-and-white assessments that profess certainty about the future. In the end, I have little choice but to trust my instincts.

My “hunch” tells me that we work in an imperfect world full of irrational reactions, uneducated citizens, dysfunctional politics, competitive nation-states willing to wage war, ruthless extrapolation based on our fossil fuel bonanza, and simple, stupid inertia. The problem transcends narrow academic and quantitative analysis—although I treasure the math and believe it should always be a vital part of any analysis. Obviously, quantitative failure trumps other concerns, although quantitative success is only the first step of many in a full assessment of viability. And it is against these myriad subjective factors that I find myself down-weighting the strictly quantitative conclusions, finding plenty of room to worry.

What’s at Stake

Talking with a friend, I cast our impending collision between finite resources and a growth trajectory as being akin to driving full-speed toward a cliff. If you pass a sign that says “Cliff Ahead: Road Ends,” why would you possibly decide to keep barreling ahead? His answer: “I’ve seen that sign 20 times already. Why should I believe it this time?” Yeah. Why should he? I’m totally sympathetic to this reaction. Had I not been stymied time after time by my own quantitative analyses and consideration of practical challenges, I might well have the same attitude.

But to me, the sign has achieved a credible status. Is it right? I can’t say for sure. But I judge that we should heed the warning and adjust our behaviors accordingly. Slow down. Make a turn toward sustainability, even if it’s rough at first. Do it while we can. Be conservative. Creep up cautiously toward the purported edge and see if there is any truth to it (maybe already traveling sideways on a sustainable tangent).

What hit home for me personally is the notion that a worst-case collapse of civilization (not unknown to history, let us recall) would be damaging to the thing I hold dearest: our accumulated knowledge of how the world works—science. Science is a luxury of highly functional societies. It is no coincidence that scientific advance is most rapid in this day and age when surplus energy is at its peak. How many computer records, tapes, CDROMs, etc., risk destruction or degradation in a collapse—even if it lasts only a century. In the more dismal collapse scenarios, how many science journals are burned for warmth? (It’s fairly certain that volumes of the Astrophysical Journal will disappear from the library before Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is sacrificed: ApJ does not make for entertaining fireside reading.)

It was always implicit for me that work invested into science will stand for all time. But the notion that my contribution to science—however incremental—may be irrevocably lost has taken some of the appeal away, I must admit. It would seem prudent, then, for scientists to devote time and talent toward our impending energy challenges. The first step is to convince people that we must swing our attention hard-over toward understanding exactly how we wean ourselves off of the fossil fuel lifeblood of our society. Either we figure it out or Mother Nature will do it for us. I for one want to fight to keep humanity’s most impressive achievements intact and understood!

I’m the type of person who runs for the just-passed bus to try and catch it at the next stop, or for the airplane that is supposed to depart in ten minutes; as long as I perceive there is some chance, I do not want to accept defeat. I have a similar urge when it comes to our future challenge: this predicament requires all-out commitment. The problem is, commitment on an individual scale does not amount to much. That’s why I started Do the Math: to convey my sense of just how challenging our future will be, so that we might increase the chances of some collective action that can make a difference. My path started with hope, but was largely supplanted by fear. I apologize for resorting to similar tactics for my audience, but fear sure made me change my behaviors and expectations, and it may turn out to be an effective tool for us all. So…Boo!

Next week, I’ll seek to provide some balance with my picture of hope.

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks.


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