Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Thermodynamic Economy

The last twelve months or so of economic chaos has taught those of us in the peak oil community some useful lessons. Perhaps the most valuable of these lessons is extent to which conventional economic ideas have failed to make sense of the way that the twilight of fossil fuels is working out in practice.

Not too long ago, it bears remembering, most people on all sides of the peak oil debate – believers, skeptics, and everyone in between – assumed that the law of supply and demand would necessarily define the world’s response to the end of cheap oil. As existing reserves depleted, nearly everyone agreed, the intersection of decreasing supply and rising demand would drive prices up. Common or garden variety cornucopians insisted that this would lead to more drilling, more secondary extraction, and other measures that would produce more oil and bring the price back down; techno-cornucopians insisted that this would lead to the discovery of new energy resources, which would produce more energy and bring the price back down; green cornucopians insisted that this would finally make renewable energy cost-effective, and at least keep the price from rising further; and pessimists argued that none of these things would happen, and the price of oil would rise steadily on up into the stratosphere.

None of them were right. Instead, as the world crossed the bumpy plateau surrounding its 2005 production peak, oil prices moved up and down in waves of increasing violence, culminating in a drastic price spike driven in part by speculative greed, and followed by an equally drastic crash driven in part by speculative panic. The shockwaves from that spike and crash were not solely responsible for the economic power dive that followed – most of a decade of hopelessly misguided fiscal policy, criminal negligence in the banking and business sectors, and a popular psychology of entitlement extreme even by the standards of past speculative disasters, all had their own parts to play – but even a financial world less shaky than the house of cards that imploded last year would have had a hard time dealing with the body blow inflicted on it by the oil spike and its aftermath.

The rubble from that collapse is still bouncing, even as politicians and pundits insist that the worst is over and a recovery will follow shortly. (This is not exactly comforting; the politicians and pundits of an earlier day said exactly the same thing during the “sucker’s rally” of 1930, when stock markets and other economic indicators regained much of the ground lost in 1929 before plunging catastrophically in the years that followed.) One thing that’s already become clear amid the dust and rubble, though, is that models of the future that assumed a steady upward rise in prices don’t apply to the much more complex reality of spike and crash that is shaping our energy future.

Somewhere in the midwest, perhaps, where a half-completed ethanol plant whose parent company has gone bankrupt is being sold for scrap, and oil leases bought for high prices last June sit unused because the current price of oil won’t justify their development, the dream of a smooth market-driven transition to a different energy system is rolling across a field with the tumbleweeds. Meanwhile the price of oil is continuing its stubborn refusal to obey the laws of supply and demand. Demand has dropped, as consumers and businesses caught in the economic downdraft cut costs, and stockpiles are ample, but the price of oil has doubled since its post-spike low, following a slow, ragged, but unmistakable upward trend.

What makes this all the more fascinating is that oil has shown the same habit of standing economic rules on their heads before. Back in the 1970s, one of the great challenges facing the economics profession was the riddle of stagflation. According to one of the most widely accepted rules of macroeconomics, inflation and deflation – which can be defined precisely as expansion and contraction, respectively, of the money supply – form two ends of a continuum of economic behavior. Rising prices, rising wages, and increased economic activity leading to overproduction are all signs of inflation, while flat or declining prices and wages and diminished economic activity leading to recession are all signs of deflation. In the wake of the Seventies oil shocks, though, the industrial world found itself in the theoretically impossible situation of an inflationary recession: prices were rising, but wages struggled to keep pace, and economic activity declined sharply.

That was stagflation. For more than a decade, economists tried to make sense of the riddle it posed, before finally giving up with a certain amount of relief in the Reagan years, and deciding that it was an anomaly that had gone away and so didn’t matter any more. To many of the economists who tried to make sense of stagflation, it was clear enough that the oil crises had had something to do with it, but this in itself posed its own awkward questions. The economics of commodity prices had been studied exhaustively since the time of Adam Smith, but the behavior of the world economy in the face of rising oil prices violated everything economists thought they knew.

Only a few economists at the time, and even fewer since then, realized that these perplexities pointed to weaknesses in the most basic assumptions of economics itself. E.F. Schumacher was one of these. He pointed out that for a modern industrial society, energy resources are not simply one set of commodities among many others. They are the ur-commodities, the fundamental resources that make economic activity possible at all, and the rules that govern the behavior of other commodities cannot be applied to energy resources in a simplistic fashion. Commented Schumacher in Small is Beautiful:

“I have already alluded to the energy problem in some of the other chapters. It is impossible to get away from it. It is impossible to overemphasize its centrality. [...] As long as there is enough primary energy – at tolerable prices – there is no reason to believe that bottlenecks in any other primary materials cannot be either broken or circumvented. On the other hand, a shortage of primary energy would mean that the demand for most other primary products would be so curtailed that a question of shortage with regard to them would be unlikely to arise” (p. 123).

If Schumacher is right – and events certainly seem to be pointing that way – at least one of the basic flaws of contemporary economic thought comes into sight. The attempt to make sense of energy resources as ordinary commodities misses the crucial point that energy follows laws of its own that are distinct from the rules governing economic activities. Trying to predict the economics of energy without paying attention to the laws governing energy on its own terms – the laws of thermodynamics – yields high-grade nonsense.

Look at the way that rules governing the availability of other resources go haywire when applied to energy. When North America’s deposits of high-grade iron ore were exhausted, for example, the iron industry switched over to progressively lower grades of ore; these contain less iron per ton than the high-grade ores but are much more abundant, and improved technology for extracting the iron makes up the difference. In theory, at least, the supply of iron ore can never run out, since industry can simply keep on retooling to use ever more abundant supplies of ever lower-grade ores, right down to iron salts dissolved in the sea.

Try to do the same thing with energy, by contrast, and two awkward facts emerge. First, the only reason the iron industry can use progressively lower grades of ore is by using increasingly large amounts of energy per ton of iron produced, and the same rule applies across the board; the lower the concentration of the resource in its natural form, the more energy has to be used to extract it and turn it into useful forms. Second, when you try to apply this principle to energy, you very quickly reach the point at which the energy needed to extract and process the resource is greater than the energy you get out the other end. Once this point arrives, the resource is no longer useful in energy terms; you might as well try to support yourself by buying $1 bills for $2 each.

This difficulty can be generalized: where energy is concerned, concentration counts for much more than quantity. That’s a function of the second law of thermodynamics: energy in a whole system always moves from high concentrations to low. Within the system, you can get energy moving against the flow of entropy, but only at the cost of reducing a larger amount or higher concentration of energy to waste heat. That’s how fossil fuels came into existence in the first place; the vast majority of hundreds of millions of years of energy from sunlight falling on prehistoric plants were degraded to waste heat and radiated into outer space, and in the process a very small fraction of that sunlight was concentrated in the form of carbon compounds and buried underground.

The same rule of concentration explains a great many things that current economic ideas miss. Consider the claims made every few years that we can power the world off some relatively low-grade energy source. Latent heat stored in the waters of the world’s oceans, for example, could theoretically provide enough power for the world’s economy to keep it running for some preposterously long period of time, and any number of inventions have tried to tap that energy. They’ve all failed, because it takes more energy to concentrate that heat to a useful temperature than you get back from the process. The same is true a fortiriori of “zero point energy,” the energy potential that according to current physics exists in the fabric of spacetime itself. It doesn’t matter in the least that there’s an infinite amount of it, or something close to that; it’s at the lowest possible level of concentration, and thus utterly useless as a power source for human society.

The same limits apply, if less strictly, to many of today’s renewable energy sources. Solar energy, for example, is very abundant, but it’s also very diffuse. As with any other energy resource, you can concentrate some of it, but only by letting a larger quantity of it turn into waste heat. It’s quite common to hear the claim that because solar energy’s so abundant, our society can easily power itself by the sun, but this shows a failure to grasp thermodynamic reality. Today’s industrial societies require very highly concentrated energy sources; our transportation networks, our power grids, and most of the other ways we use energy, all work by degrading very high concentrations of energy all at once into waste heat, and without those highly concentrated resources, those things won’t work at all.

Now of course there are plenty of productive things that can be done with more diffuse energy sources. Once again, solar energy provides a good example. Passive solar heating for buildings is a mature and highly successful technology; so is solar hot water heating; so are a good many other specialized uses, such as using solar ovens for cooking, water purification, and the like. All these can contribute mightily to the satisfaction of human needs and wants, but they presuppose very different social and economic arrangements than the centralized energy economy of power plants, refineries, pipelines and power grids we have today. As concentrated energy from fossil fuels becomes scarce, in other words, and more diffuse energy from the sun and other renewable sources has to take up the slack, many of the ground rules shaping today’s economic decisions will no longer apply.

What this implies, in turn, is that economics does not exist in a vacuum. The ground rules just mentioned took shape, after all, in an age where economic processes were dominated – one might even say “distorted” – by our species’ temporary access to extravagant supplies of cheap and highly concentrated fossil fuel energy. The new ground rules of economics that will take shape in the twilight of the age of cheap energy, in turn, will be shaped by the fact that energy is once again scarce, costly, and diffuse. More generally, it’s necessary once again to pay attention to the myriad ways that human economic systems are rooted in the wider processes of the natural world – a theme that will be central to next week’s post.

38 comments:

hardhead said...

Yes, yes, JMG. Keep going in this direction, because it's at the heart of what ails us.

Humans, even - or especially - the most "highly educated," and most particularly we notoriously exceptionalist Uhmerrkins, seem to believe that we are exempt from, or have the ability to circumvent, the very laws of nature that enable us to exist in the first place. The social "sciences" - psychology, sociology, and particularly economics - are founded on that notion, giving the lie to their claim to be sciences at all. We, or more accurately, our descendants, are going to find out what a stupid notion that is.

So, yes, stay with this line as long as you can. Keep talking and pleading and wheedling and cajoling and yelling, trying to snap people out of their stupor. Good luck, and more power to ya.

jagged ben said...

Thanks for another good one JMG.

How many academic economists do you think read this blog?

And ... do you care?

RJ said...

Something tells me economist/MBA types may be a bit less in demand going forward. After all, what does money represent if not energy, and what economist in their right mind could fathom a world with less wealth? It's simply a flawed premise that's non-negotiable.

Growing up with cheap, abundant energy, especially in the USA, has fostered an expectation of the quick fix. I think mitigation will be key going forward, with salvage and recycling moving to the forefront. Not just in industrial metals, but in consumer goods as well. Thrift stores, produce stands, and flea markets should all be coming back into fashion shortly.

ariel55 said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

I wish to thank you for your wonderful writing talents and fine mind. I have only recently discovered your website, and find it very valuable in my life. Please keep writing, you are filling an important
niche on the worldwide web!

Bruce said...

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in his 1971 classic Entropy and the Economic Process showed fairly succinctly how the Second Law governs economics in general. I'm sure you are aware of his work too. Its not as accessible as Schumacher's writings, but its not bad until he starts throwing in a bit of calculus in the middle of the book to illustrate what he's talking about.

My wife is an engineer for a power company and she's managed to get some of her colleagues to start reading the Archdruid Report as well. It will be interesting to hear what they think of this week's post.

Coyote said...

It seems that many thinkers in the 70s really began to see the world as it is: E.F. Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, Ivan Illich, Warren Johnson, the Rome Club Folks, et. al. Then we decided that we would rather be trickled-on than change our ways. I was there too, I didn't own a tv or a car until well out of college, then I just gave up. It would be easy to blame it on Ray-gun or Slick Willy, but most of us bought in, it was just too easy to be (relatively) rich rather than think.

JMG, I really appreciate the time and effort you put into this blog. You got some wood on the ball this week.

vegan_satori said...

John, You said: "Latent heat stored in the waters of the world’s oceans, for example, could theoretically provide enough power for the world’s economy to keep it running for some preposterously long period of time, and any number of inventions have tried to tap that energy. They’ve all failed, because it takes more energy to concentrate that heat to a useful temperature than you get back from the process."

I offer a major correction: Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion is powered by solar energy and runs on ocean temperature differences between surface waters and cold deep waters, not "energy concentration". OTEC was proven to work in 1930.
Please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_thermal_energy_conversion and http://www.energybulletin.net/node/16811
From the wikipedia:
"Beginning in 1970 the Tokyo Electric Power Company successfully built and deployed a 100 kW closed-cycle OTEC plant on the island of Nauru. The plant, which became operational 1981-10-14, produced about 120 kW of electricity; 90 kW was used to power the plant itself and the remaining electricity was used to power a school and several other places in Nauru. This set a world record for power output from an OTEC system where the power was sent to a real power grid. India piloted a 1 MW floating OTEC plant near Tamil Nadu. Its government continues to sponsor various research in developing floating OTEC facilities."

It may be somewhat "preposterous" to think we could build enough capacity to save technological civilization, but OTEC has not "failed". Our problem is that OTEC and/or any other renewable energy technology and/or conservation practices won't keep pace with and replace oil as supplies dwindle. Certainly not at the energy levels used by today's population with the remaining available resources. We are headed for a big crunch, the best we can hope for is avoidance of extinction.

John Michael Greer said...

Hardhead, thanks for the encouragement! There's going to be a bunch of this sort of thing over the next few months.

Ben, I'd be surprised if there were any academic economists reading this at all. That's not the point; economics is too important to be left to economists.

RJ, no argument there.

Ariel, many thanks for the encouragement!

Bruce, no, I hadn't encountered Georgescu-Roegen's work. Many thanks for the heads up -- I'll definitely look him up.

Coyote, granted, there's more than enough responsibility to go around. I've long held the unpopular opinion that the quality of government is precisely determined by the relationship between the privileges the people want and the responsibilities they're willing to accept. From that standpoint, we get the government we deserve.

Vegan, I wasn't talking about OTEC. Oceanic thermal energy conversion doesn't use latent heat; it uses the difference in temperature between deep and shallow ocean water. That's a diffuse energy source, about as diffuse as solar energy, but like solar energy, it can be harnessed for a variety of practical uses. No, the notion of extracting the latent heat from water is one of those ideas like perpetual motion, or extracting gold from seawater; looks good on paper, doesn't work in practice.

knutty knitter said...

I keep hoping some of us in the outlying areas may still manage to be ok but really, we are all in the same boat. Been reading here for a while now and like what I see :)

There's a transition town where I live now and community has always been important. We also have a lot of alternate lifestylers (hippies) me included, so skills are present too.

The hard thing will be living in the two worlds at once as one of the other posters said (yesterday I think).

Viv in New Zealand

in_the_light said...

Well put, JMG. Thanks for such an articulate analysis of the relationship between economics and everything else via a shared understanding of peak oil.

I heard on NPR tonight about a major leaguer who pitched a no-hitter on LSD. I think writing about these types of connections to an audience must be a little like pitching while tripping on acid. First, you have a very unique perspective which makes sense in some strange way and all eyes are on you. Second, whether your performance is unbelievable because its amazing or just plain rediculous hinges on whether you stay focussed enough to see the hallucinations for what they are, symbols of a deeper reality, or whether you trip out on them and get all foo-foo in lala land saying things that elicit responses like "What the heck is this guy smoking?"

Um... wow! I can't believe I just made that analogy, but once I heard about the no-hitter on acid, I knew I had to work it into my day somehow. Nice work JMG.

-Mat

Llewellyn said...

Another exceptional post JMG.It amazes me that top scientist don't see these problems.
There was an interesting article on the oil drum on net energy. It’ll be interesting to know what you think (Hop I'm allowed to put this link) of the article.

Here's the link:
http://netenergy.theoildrum.com/node/5500

GiangiF said...

Following Bruce, I would encourage everyone to look at Georgescu-Roegen's work, and the follow up led by Kozo Mayumi and Mario Giampietro.
Ciao

Giancarlo

disillusioned said...

Another good post - but I'm going to have to wade in over zero point energy and PM machines. This is an area I do know about.

Since the 1960's with the work of John Wheeler, it has been accepted that the energy density of plain empty space is about 10^71 Kg equivalent of mass, per cubic metre. That's about 10^82 Joules.

So the energy bound in the empty space in a desk knee-well is rather more then the 10^41 Joules output of a Super-nova. By at least 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times.

Actually, energy-density is inverse with scale - the smaller you go, the more you get in absolute terms. That's 'cause energy finds it's most stable state at the smallest level, working any kinks out over larger scale (which is why as you go longer-range, so you find forces are weaker e.g. gravity).

So-called Perpetual Motion machines can and have been made, but they're just not viable in the face of a capitalistic system, which has found it's ideal product: Oil.

Every stage of oil production can be costed, then people buy the stuff and do the ideal capatalistic act - they destroy it. So they need more - thus more $$ changes hands and the numbers $ wise ramp up fast. Oil makes more money then PM; that's what we get.

So. Here is how to make (on paper) a PM machine.

Note 1) that this is a pressure engine, just like the hydroelectric dam. There are no Conservation of Energy or entropy issues.

Note 2) all space expands; at every scale, trading internal pressure for volume. This is key. Keep it in mind.

Here we go:

A) take a section of space and wall it in, inside a pressure vessel.

B) Note that the trapped space cannot expand, so its pressure remains constant. The exterior space though can expand; it does so right along with the rest of the Universe. The pressure in this region... drops (forced by Conservation of Energy; as the Universe gets bigger so interstitial pressures drop).

C) You now have a container of high vs exterior low pressure (again, just like the hydroelectric dam). Make a hole in your pressure vessel and tap the outflow (which means put some wires across it; you get electricity out).

The difficult part is (A) as matter walls cannot be used - space just leaks out. You need fields, typically magnetic - done successfully in 1949 (Searl), in 1985 (Sweet), in 1997 (Marks). The earliest working variation I know of dates from 1870.

Some conclusions:

i) capitalism wins
ii) climate change was unnecessary
iii) you can bet this tech, which is pretty simple, is kept waiting in the wings - just ready for the moment when every last $ has been extracted for oil.

I want to clearly state: Perpetual Motion / Free Energy is practical, has been done, has no scientific barriers, has no Conservation issues (indeed works because of Conservation of Energy).

And is just not profitable.

Bill Pulliam said...

Mainstream economists are masters of the ad hoc explanation for whatever happened yesterday. Oil prices down? It's because of large inventories. Oil prices up? It's because of political unrest in Nigeria. Any given day there are several off-the-shelf rationalizations available for whatever move any market happens to make; the "analysts" just seem to grab whichever one they need for that particular date. I suppose this is all part of maintaining the self-delusion that they actually understand what is going on. Actually, all people are masters of this process, not just economists; economists just happen to get a lot of media and political attention for their own particular PIOOMA explanations.

Of course all of this obsessive attention to short-term market moves has almost nothing to do with the real large-scale and long-term processes at work in economics; it just makes for "good TV." In recent months global oil production has finally slipped substantially off the plateau at which it has been stalled for several years. Of course, we're told, this is just because of the recession putting the brakes on global demand; the large inventories "prove" this. Or, maybe, the global recession is a symptom of a large-scale, long-term phenomenon being driven by the long-term drop in energy supply, and the weirdness we see now about rising prices in the face of rising inventories is just a short-term glitch -- one of the omnipresent transitory imbalances that one sees in any momentary snapshot of any real-world dynamic system, be it an economy, an atmosphere, or a goldfish pond? For those of us like JMG who take a thermodynamic view of all these dynamic systems (as physics would teach us is the best approach) the latter explanation carries much more weight. But for the great masses who take a financial view of everything, I don't know that they will ever come to the same view. The ad hoc explanation generators will always come up with something that involves financial markets, government regulations, illegal immigrants, unfair trade regulations, etc. etc. After all, it's illegal immigrants who are stealing all our jobs, it has nothing to do with global corporations shipping manufacturing overseas because *cheap abundant energy* makes this more profitable. Someone who holds the former opinion will in all likelihood *never* be swayed from it.

blue sun said...

You've outdone yourself again! Thank you, and keep at it!

Bill Pulliam said...

About OTEC etc...

120 kW out for 90kW in is a pretty lousy energy return. Sure, it's a technology still early in development -- except I have been hearing about it since I was in elementary school in the 1970s. If you factor in all the energy that went in to the manufacture of the generating facility, all the way back to the raw materials buried in the earth, you'd probably find a really lousy (large negative) net energy return. This points out a common feature of high-tech alternative energy schemes. initially they have a horrible net enegry return, consuming far more energy than they produce. Over many years of research they creep to "break even;" even then they are measuring only instantaneously, comparing power in versus power out when the system is in operation. When you include the extended enery costs of the system they are nowhere near break even at that point. Ultimately the hope is that long-term the net energy gain will creep up to something economically viable.

Compare this to the energy sources that have actually powered human civilizations over the millenia. The first log ever thrown on the first cooking fire produced a huge positive net energy yield compared to the energy it took to gather it and dry it. Wind-powered navigation (i.e sailboats) are enormously efficient in terms of propulsion generated for unit energy expended. Coal and oil yielded vast, hundred-fold returns on energy investments from the beginning of their commericial exploitation. Passive solar is phenomenally efficient even if you are just a lizard laying out in the sun, or a neolithic winter camp put on the south side of a hill.

If it requires a massive investment in research and development, consuming large sums of public resources and many decades of time, before it yields even its very first net positive calorie of energy, I think it is a safe wager that it will never be the foundation for a civilization.

RDatta said...

In connection with Peak Oil & Global Warming (or should we say Peak Energy & Climate Change)one can find a wide assortment of facts hither & yon on the Web.

It is so nice to have you organize a substantial number so concisely and connectedly in your posts.

If you continue this effort into your next book, it should be a most valuable reference, prognostically, therapeutically and historically.

Robin

John Michael Greer said...

Viv, if past examples of decline and fall are anything to go by, the outlying areas are just as vulnerable as anybody else. Still, good luck and keep knitting.

Light, er, thank you, I think. I admit that's not a metaphor that would have occurred to me. ;-)

Llewellyn, I saw the article when it came out -- The Oil Drum is one of the handful of peak oil news sites I read daily. It's a plausible argument, and if things work out that way, we're in a world of hurt.

Giancarlo, I've got those authors on my short list to read soon. Anybody who's a friend of the second law of thermodynamics is a friend of mine!

Disillusioned, I'm quite familiar with the arguments for zero point power, not to mention the lurid conspiracy theories that always seem to come up whenever anybody asks to see a working model. I find them utterly implausible, not least because the payoff to any nation or company that broke with the alleged conspiracy and built a zero-point generator would be so vast. (Why haven't the North Koreans built one, for example?) The TANSTAAFL principle -- "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" -- remains the best rule of thumb in energy matters. Demonstrate a working model in a public setting that precludes fraud, and I'll take your claims as something other than shoveling smoke; otherwise it's right up there with perpetual motion and abiotic oil as a convenient but self-defeating way of trying to ignore the hard fact of ecological limits.

Bill, well, we'll see. I suspect opinions are a bit more malleable than that.

Sun, thank you.

Bill, OTEC was a hot topic in my high school debate club the year the energy crisis was the theme of choice. You're quite right that its economics haven't improved since then, and I suspect the net energy is low to negative. Still, might be worth checking.

Robin, well, I'll do my best!

Mike said...

John,

After reading this week's post and thinking it over a bit, you may be interested in Eric D. Schneider's and Dorion Sagan's book "Into the Cool". They've a site about the book at http://www.intothecool.com/ .

Simon Cast said...

Very interesting post. I've been thinking about economics and underlying energy for a while and agree that an economy is a method of using energy to achieve work on a massive scale.

I think the stagflation of the 70's was induced by the energy per unit GDP grew faster than the energy supply. In a lot of the debate I think we need to consider the energy per unit GDP/per capita when designing economic policy including global warming aspects.

Interestingly I hadn't considered the diffuseness of the energy supply and something to think more about. It does point to the need to focus far more on reducing energy per unit GDP/capita through efficiency measures than many people think. As efficiency increases (energy per unit GDP/capita falls) more and more diffuse sources become effective.

Danby said...

Disillusioned,
The key question about zero point energy is "How much energy does it take to constrict space itself?" My contention, and that of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is that it will take more energy than can be extracted. After all, zero-point energy is the base level to which potential energy must fall to provide work. Indeed, what you are doing is increasing the potential energy or (as JMG would have it) concentrating it, through the application of other energy. In net energy terms, it's like pumping water back behind the dam to run through the turbines again.

Until you can demonstrate net energy returns, the entire project is a pipe dream (in keeping with today's evident theme, that is a wish-fulfillment dream induced by the smoking of opium). The total energy content of an object, or a region of space, is of little import. It is the ability to extract that energy that counts. Consider that the button on your shirt contains hundreds of billions of joules of energy in the form of physical matter. E=mc^2 and all that.

Phil said...

I'd heartily recommend a read of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's 1975 article "Energy and Economic Myths"

http://www.eoearth.org/article/Energy_and_economic_myths_%28historical%29

It's a classic.

Phil

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, many thanks. I'll check it out.

Simon, that's an interesting analysis and certainly worth exploring. I haven't had a chance to review the stagflation literature yet, but will do so -- not least because the same kinds of dysfunction are likely to crop up again in the near future, to the extent that they haven't done so already.

Danby, thanks for getting the point. Not that I had any doubt...

Phil, many thanks! I'll check it out.

spottedwolf said...

Loved this post John......for in its overall portrait of modern economic equations and insights it alludes to the difficulty with which I try to help others find a better understanding of self. The human condition can be summed up in a comparative manner on the grand scale, such as a societies' current view of structural status, against the microcosmic problems associated to one member's desire to understand how they came to the point they are in life. In essence, the basic influences, such as DNA and emotional formational proclivity, always supersede the human ability to perceive and conduct change in a simple directive. The constant reiteration of earlier idea in an attempt to supplement current failing processes......is directly comparable to how convoluted the learning process is....to integrate children into the social pool. In order to deal with any problems of stagnation.....all involved must strip away the level of presupposition in every attempt to fund change. If such can be accomplished..what is usually discovered is another layer of misconception which also must be addressed in an attempt to arrive at the earliest cores of recognition, acceptance, and manipulation......the three levels of control classically considered learned in our first post natal year.

The simple truth is that such a dilemma, as is currently faced worldwide, was built on convoluted basics and will be addressed by the 'stripdown' to ground zero....or it will continue to fail.

LDD said...

We already use a form of zero point energy, i.e. gravity as in hydroelectirc plants. Whether space is expanding or not, all one need is to exploit differencies in relative energy densities in "the vacuum" to extract energy from it. In 2002 a US patent was granted for a "motionless electromagnetic generator," to Tom Bearden. Why?

John Michael Greer said...

Spotted Wolf, my guess is that it'll continue to fail. Giambattista Vico pointed out a long time ago that the older a society gets, the further it retreats from reality into a world composed of its own mental constructs and their material manifestations (a house, after all, is a human thought made material), until finally they lose track of the real world completely and collapse.

LDD, hydroelectric power is a form of solar energy; solar heat pumps water from the oceans in the form of vapor, and dumps it up on the land in the form of rain and snow, creating an energy potential that a hydroelectric turbine can tap. It obeys the laws of thermodynamics, and therefore it works. "Zero point energy" schemes don't, so they don't.

As for the patent, well, T. Galen Hieronymus got a patent for the Hieronymus machine, too. Since the patent office no longer requires a working model, they've been putting their rubber stamp on all kinds of oddities. Show me an example that works -- not a friend-of-a-friend story of a rumor about a machine in somebody's basement, but a working model in a public setting that precludes fraud -- and we'll talk.

Kathy said...

JMG, very good post. I might add that as well as being diffuse, these other energy sources are all currently doing something else. Every bit of energy, no matter how small is currently doing something else. We can appropriate some amount of it for human use without consequence but we have no idea what would happen (until we try) if we appropriate large amounts of wind, solar, tide, ocean temp differential etc. Maybe appropriating large amounts of solar would help cool a warming planet, but even then it might change weather and especially rain patterns. Hydro, which seems benign has in fact killed fish, flooded good farmland, removed silt from fertile deltas, and has and will cause massive floods when those dams break. But much worse, we thought oil and coal were just filling up holes in the ground. In fact they were sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere (in the case of coal some heavy metals as well). While emptying the ground has caused some problems, re-releasing that carbon into the air is another matter. It is a good thing that our plans for supposedly green techs will never go far as the consequence of massive use of solar, wind etc is a one time experiment that we might not like the results of.

We do need to think and become small again, in numbers and footprint. Get a solar powered transportation device - a donkey is probably the most efficient. Or just transport yourself using solar energy trapped in food.

disillusioned said...

Hi guys,

Zero point stuff... ctd. And the issue of proof. Tricky.

Well the proof to Farday's 1820 "electric motor" invention was - he mailed out models to friends. Just add mercury, electricity and watch magnets + current => motion. He proved his point. Hm.

Visible proof is needed by people; very understandable.

But I think that a point has been missed. And alas I can't mail out OU models to everyone, but I do what I can.

Let's try a different route. What I was expressing is likely the same "free" energy which is pushing entire galaxies away from each other, faster and faster, right now.

Our Universe is not seen to "coast along" as it expands; it is seen to continually accelerate in expansion. Billions of very heavy galaxies made to move ever faster.

Continually pushed. That means a continuous energy spend. Of "lots".

And notice, no visible use of oil or fire or Archimedean levers. No hand of Man.

So - why is it WE can't have some of that??

I would content that there is, ultimately, no good reason. As a society I suggest we have blinkered ourselves; we have become stuck in rote reactions. The Q is: how much of that is deliberate?

Back to energy. The "pressure of space" is a likely seat of the Universe's expansion; if this be so, it's a built-in property of the 3D spacial system we live in. It will be everywhere.

And the continual pressure drop experienced everywhere (energetically, pressure => volume as space expands thus pressure values continually fall; the total energy is constant) can give pressure differences analogous to hydroelectric. All you need is contrive a barrier and a pressure difference can arise.

I cited a few "free energy" devices. These, when analysed from a pressure of space viewpoint - make sense.

They can be reverse engineered.

Here, "free energy" is space asserting "I'm going to expand from internal pressure, and take every chance to do so". Energy comes not from magnets, gravity or arrangements (though these may be needed to contrive a working device).

The bricks in a dam wall add no energy; that's from the constrained medium of water. Which has been provided by a natural process (sunlight driven evaporation). The magnets and electronics of a device don't add energy; it's the expansion of space, the constrained medium; again, provided and energised by a natural process. No hand of Man or fuel needed for this one.

This does not insist that all FE devices are real, that there are no frauds - just that some make sense and have an identifiable energy source which does not conflict with Conservation.

Different devices, from different people, in different countries in different ages - all with a common principle.

Hm. How did they know that?

Or, did they discover and exploit a property of Nature existing everywhere?

Perhaps they are conspiring?

I don't like a simple whitewashing of conspiracy theories. The mindset here insists everything calling for a "conspiracy" must be false.

Clearly, there are no conspiracies.

That's why there are no wars, agendas or interest groups :)

..just move along... no conspiracy here... watch your TV... do your best by staying a home... put your feet up... don't think... conform...

And, thanks for your feedbacks - they make me think!

GMB said...

Wonderful discussions. JMG, thank you for all your efforts. While thinking about the relationships that exist among energy utilization and economics, it occurred to me that I had to ask myself just what is the "success" we are attempting to achieve? People tend to be such self-serving creatures don't we?

I don't know if I am a really a cornucopian or not but I am an evolutionist and I do believe that in some sense our species will tend to (attempt to) adapt to changing circumstances. The fact remains that we are absolutely required to follow the rules of the physical universe and this does include the principles of thermodynamics. Number one: you can't get something for nothing, and number two: you can never break even.

The survivors on this planet (which may not include people) will still find a way to utilize an energy conversion process fundamentally rooted from our Sun. As for now, we are still here, we all like to be warm, well fed, and see in the dark. The extravagant ways we have invented to do this is expensive indeed, and until we stop competing against ourselves and scale back a little, nothing is really going to change. Whether oil is expensive or not really has no bearing, it's all relative. (At one extreme, how long would the biological systems on this planet survive without the Sun for example?)

Now, if I could just convince my neighbors to shut off THEIR off blow dryers and stop driving THEIR Hummers, and leave MY salmon alone, the whole world will be a better place... yeah - right.

Anyway.. Thanks again.

hapibeli said...

Great post Kathy. Puts all JMG's post, and most of the comments, into a nutshell. Goin lookin for muh donky rat now! LOL!

DIYer said...

Perhaps the biggest reason photovoltaic and other solar technology hasn't caught on is that it doesn't fit in a subscription based business model. The centralized utility providers don't benefit from distributed (and unmetered) energy collection.

That, and solar doesn't "scale". For the utility, each increment in a solar plant means a corresponding increment in cost. So we are stuck with "conventional" technologies, where a larger plant can be managed with a similar amount of human effort.

As we continue to explore the boundaries of our petri dish, I'd like to socialize the term "profligacies of scale" to replace the obsolete "economies of scale".

chickade said...

Thanks for the opportunity to comment. No wonder my Geomantic divinations point to loss and instability when I ask about the next 5 years. I have spent most of my life with a sense of expecting to have wealth in the form of land or a home. But I am finding that I really can't expect anything to work out the way I would like. I may have to give up my home and only count on my skills to be able to provide safety and stability for my family. The wealth of the future will be what you know how to create.

therianthrope said...

Hey everyone, I've been reading/lurking for a few months now and just wanted to say hi and offer thanks to JMG, and you all, for the food for thought.

I stumbled across the Archdruid Report while doing "disaster preparedness"-type research elsewhere on the interwebs and it has been invaluable in aiding me in understanding and articulating my concerns with things, as they are, to myself and my peers, ever since...

As a conservationist and green-energy hopeful I would like to believe that the (seemingly, relatively easy?) technological advances needed in storage and transmission can be overcome to make such supplemental sources as solar and wind, constant and reliable... even if only for smaller "population units". Maybe not what we want our water infrastructure to run on, but it can certainly go a very long way, especially if/as efficiencies improve and manufacture costs decrease, no?

das monde said...

I suspect that the paradoxical inflation/deflation/stagflation indeterminacy can be shaped by increasingly skewed income inequality. As mass of people have to constrain themselves to pay off debts or survive, the businesses have a dilemma: try to keep their market by lowering prices (and own returns), or serve exclusively the well off.

On the other hand, the 70s were not defined by skew inequality. The oil prices may have indeed played a big role. Like with the real estate, the supple-and-demand balance does not immediately play the presumed role when their prices go down.

in_the_light said...

Disillusioned- You make an interesting point. It certainly me something to think about. I don't quite grasp everything you are saying in your post, however, I do find one fault in an aspect of the way you are approaching the issue of free energy.

If the universe is expanding all the time because of a certain amount of energy that is being released due to the pressure created by containment, doesn't that mean that we are already feeling that energy in the world around us? I mean, we are part of the universe that is expanding, right? In other words, isn't that energy is ALREADY being harnessed by all of us all the time? If not, how so? The way I see it, we have no choice in that matter. We live with a certain baseline energy present all the time.

The whole concept of sustainability centers around the realization that we've ratcheted up the level of energy we need beyond what is given to us to spend. To evoke an economic analogy, we spend more than we make and have been dwiddling away our inheritance savings. It seems like what you are saying is that we don't have to change the way we spend, we just have to come up with a fancy investment scheme to multiply our income so that we can get some "free money". What I, and many others, are saying is that we don't need to invest deviously so that we can continue spending without end, but that we need to adjust our way of living to be in accord with our income.

If my analysis of what you are saying is correct, the fault that I see in your way of thinking about this is that you are saying that it is somehow healthy or good for us to maintain this way of life if only it were a "green" way. I think it is unhealthy. And I think that these ecological limits that we face (energy included in that) aren't necessarily a bad thing. Rather they are the limits given to us by the universe to keep us safe and grow in a sustainable way. Jus' like ma used ta!

-mat

kevin said...

Great item and comments, couldn't agree more. However, I'm not one for doomsday but I agree a complete reordering is baked in and the nature of the technology suggests the elites will face the same disintermediation that for a little while gathered their reigns.

pmcc said...

JMG,
I greatly enjoy reading your thoughtful and beautifully written blogs.

Just one comment this time though. To my mind your point about solar energy collection rather misses the mark. Incoming solar radiation is a low entropy resource, which we could potentially concentrate using well understood technologies to generate electricity (flat mirrors and steam engines, or parabolic mirrors and stirling engines). This could be deployed on a large scale over desert regions. Trials are ongoing, prototypes working, and there seems to be no fundamental reason for it not to be viable.

Naturally, the radiation currently is turned into high entropy waste heat by reflection and re-radiation from the ground.

When used for electricity generation, entropy would increase through thermal losses in the generator equipment and transmission, then again once the electricity is consumed. The net result is the same as the natural state, but we've had the benefit of increasing entropy for our own purposes rather than heating and cooling the desert.

I don't see entropy as a fundamental limit to our ability to extract energy from the sun, because the energy returned from collecting solar energy is very much higher than the energy invested in the equipment and infrastructure. Much more potent is our inability to organise politically and build out the infrastructure while it is still relatively cheap and we can invest fossil fuels to do it.

In any case, I'm sure we agree that deploying solar energy collection, even on a large scale, will not be sufficient to preserve our current way of life. There are too many limits inherent in our lifestyles for that to be possible.

One thing to note - all 'renewable' energy collectors deployed on a large scale will change the local climate to some extent. It would be interesting to know how significant this could be.

Do petroleo ao posto de combustivel said...

Hi Michael, I just saw your article in internet and I'd really loved it. I liked a lot your explanations about concentration of energy. I post it in my blog too: http://silviaguimaraes.info/blog/2011/01/10/a-economia-termodinamica/
Thank you,
Silvia Guimaraes