Citizen Action Monitor

NO WAY OUT: Civilization caught in a double-bind between global collapse and CO2 levels of 1200 ppm

Absent collapsing the economy, with GDP at zero, emissions can be stabilized only by building the equivalent of one nuke plant per day globally.

No 2373 Posted by fw, September 18, 2018

NOTE — To access my other posts related to Dr. Garrett’s research on a global economic/civilization collapse by the end of this century, click on the Tab in the top left margin, titled Civilization/Economic Collapse ~ Links to All Posts By or About Dr. Tim Garrett’s Research

“Effectively, it appears that civilization may be in a double-bind. If civilization does not collapse quickly this century, then CO2 levels will likely end up exceeding 1000 ppmv; but, if CO2 levels rise by this much, then the risk is that civilization will gradually tend towards collapse. With business-as-usual, by 2100 the world GDP would be 10 times higher than today and the atmospheric CO2 would be around 1200 ppm. … While growth must initially be positive for civilization to emerge, positive growth cannot be sustained forever. Civilization networks are always falling apart, and presumably in a world with finite resources, we will eventually lose the capacity to keep fixing them. Future loss of useable Land and Water is already in the pipeline from all prior carbon emissions, and CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated. Whether collapse comes sooner or later depends on the quantity of energy reserves available to support continued growth and the accumulated magnitude of externally imposed decay… Theoretical and numerical arguments suggest that when growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to such externalities as natural disasters, and the risk is for an accelerating collapse.”Tim Garrett

To put atmospheric physicist Tim Garrett’s double-bind finding succinctly and impolitely, “WE’RE SCREWED!” After all, the methodology of physics is the surest path to robust, reliable, valid and replicable empirical knowledge. Economics, on the other hand, as Robert Shiller, Nobel prize-winner in Economics, put it: “One problem with economics is that it is necessarily focused on policy, rather than discovery of fundamentals. … once we focus on economic policy, much that is not science comes into play. Politics becomes involved…

In a 2008, 19-page paper titled Are there basic physical restraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?, physicist Tim Garrett presented a detailed analysis crammed with scientific jargon and mathematical expressions and formulae related to humankind’s existential predicament.

In 2014, social critic, political/cultural commentator, publishing under the pseudonym “xraymike79”, posted an excellent, comprehensible recapitulation of Garrett’s 2008 paper.

Below is my repost of Mike’s summary. For me, having no physics background, Mike’s abridgement presented five significant challenges: first, to comprehend its meaning, second to look for any obvious flaws in Garrett’s chain of reasoning; third, to understand the significant implications of Garrett’s findings; four, to figure out what, if anything, I could do to disseminate Garrett’s work to selected political and news decision- and policy-makers; and fifth, to identify and retain in long-term memory, key points in Garrett’s argument as condensed by Mike.

About xraymike79 – Mike writes: I’m a social critic, political/cultural commentator and artist. The modern industrial world is on the cusp of great changes to our current unsustainable way of life. Most people are oblivious to the paradigm shift that will occur, but some are starting to awaken to the fact that the future will not resemble the halcyon days of the last half century in America as evidenced by the OWS [Occupy Wall Street] movement. My objective is to highlight important news stories and find the truth that is hidden behind what [columnist] Joe Bageant [died 2011] called the American Hologram.

Note this about my repost below: content has been edited in places; some of Mike’s images have been omitted; hyperlinks have been added; bulleted formatting has been added to amplify chains of reasoning; many subheadings have been added to facilitate reading for information; and text highlighting has been added to bring ideas to the fore.

At the bottom of this post are the definitions of four key physics terms that appear in this article: energy, power, work, and biophysics.

To read xraymike79’s original article on his website, appropriately named “Collapse of Industrial Civilization,” click on the following linked title.

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The Biophysics of Civilization, Money = Energy, and the Inevitability of Collapse by xraymike79, Collapse of Industrial Civilization, March 2014

“Civilization must constantly consume in order to sustain itself against this constant loss of energy and matter…”

“…the Second Law [of Thermodynamics] also demands that nothing can do anything without consuming concentrated energy, or fuel, and then dissipating it as unusable waste heat. For example, the Earth “consumes” concentrated sunlight to power weather and the water cycle, and then radiates unusable thermal energy to the cold of space. Like the weather in our atmosphere, all economic actions and motions, even our thoughts, must also be propelled by a progression from concentrated fuel to useless waste heat. The economy would grind to a halt absent continued energetic input. Buildings crumble; people die; technology becomes obsolete; we forget. Civilization must constantly consume in order to sustain itself against this constant loss of energy and matter…” [Source: Tim Garrett, Can we predict long-run economic growth? The Retirement Management Journal, Vol 2, No. 2, Summer 2012]

To keep civilization running, 17 trillion watts of power are consumed daily to keep 7 billion bodies alive

On average the human brain experiences 70,000 thoughts daily and requires roughly 24 watts or roughly 500 Calories during that time to function. To keep modern civilization running, 17 trillion Watts of power are consumed, 4% of which goes to keeping humanity’s 7 billion bodies alive while the rest powers our buildings, machines, and agriculture.

+ The laws of thermodynamics require that all systems, whether natural or inorganic, evolve and grow through the conversion of environmental potential energy into a dissipated form known commonly as waste heat. 

+ Most of the energy we need to run industrial civilization still comes from fossil fuels with coal being the primary source, and projections are that this will remain so far into the future.

+ Since fossil fuels give off nasty greenhouse gasses that heat up the planet and destabilize the biosphere, the obvious question is whether our economic engine can be decoupled from CO2 emissions.

Atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett has a few papers on this subject and a new paper on collapse which I’ll mention at the end, but first let’s review and get an understanding of what he said in his censored* paper, ‘Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?  [*Garrett’s 19-page paper was submitted in 2008, and published online in 2009. Garrett writes about the biased criticism of his paper in a piece titled Criticisms from Climatic Change written in 2014].

Conclusions of the paper entitled ‘Are there basic physical constraints on future anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide?’:

+ Improving energy efficiency accelerates CO2 emissions growth.

+ Absent collapsing the economy (In other words turning the inflation adjusted GDP to zero), emissions can be stabilized only by building the equivalent of one nuke plant per day globally (or some other non CO2-emitting power supply)

+ Emissions growth has inertia (due to the high probability of points one and two)

The present state and growth of civilization are determined by the past, and the past fundamentally cannot be changed. Thus we are set on a trajectory that can lead to simplified predictions of the future.

Where does the value of money come from?

From an economics perspective, the value of money is belief-based

An economist would say that its value is fundamentally belief-based. I believe it has value and you believe it has value; therefore, it has value.

From a physics perspective, what turns that piece of paper, money, into something of value is its physical relationship to our rate of energy consumption

From a physics perspective, this [economics] explanation is a bit unsatisfactory because it doesn’t really explain where that belief comes from. Why is that belief so resilient?

Presumably that belief has some physical representation because civilization certainly is part of the physical universe. It’s not separate from it. We are all part of the physical world.

Here’s the reasoning

+ Civilization is an organism that can be defined by how it consumes/transforms energy.

+ Physics can be used to describe civilization.

+ There are basic laws of thermodynamics and, fundamentally, physics is about the transformation of energy from one state to another or really the flow of energy downhill, or more strictly, the flow of material downhill from a high potential state to a low potential state. You can think of a ball rolling from a high gravitational potential to a low gravitational potential.

+ Money is a representation of some energetic flow [economic activity] from high potential to low potential. +

+ Economic wealth represents the rate of consumption of energy in civilization.

+ Human civilization represents a gradient between available energy supplies (coal, oil, uranium) and a point of low potential (depleted energy resources).

+ We consume energy, things happen in civilization due to the flow across that potential gradient (high to low) releasing waste heat which radiates to outer space at a cold temperature of about 255 Kelvin (-18ºC).

+ We can treat civilization as a single organism that interacts on a global scale with available energy reservoirs and through the transformation of that energy (stuff is done, economic activity occurs).

+ Money is a representation of that capacity to do stuff physically (or how fast it can consume that energy).

+ This is a testable hypothesis and it can be expressed mathematically which means we can look at this quantitatively.

Accumulated wealth enables us to produce more wealth, which enables civilization to grow

Wealth is the value of something that has accumulated over time. Based on what we currently have, we are able to produce more which gives us more power to produce even more in the future. It’s through this spontaneous feedback process that civilization is able to grow.

The question is, “How do you calculate this accumulated wealth?”

Economists use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure wealth

Economists use GDP as a wealth indicator. All the economic production added up from the beginning of history up to the present is the total accumulated wealth for civilization.

GDP is expressed as units of currency over a period of time

GDP has units of currency per time, so it’s a production per year.

Inflation-adjusted production is producing something new to be added to what we currently have and that added over time creates our wealth.

The hypothesis says that this process is related to our rate of energy consumption through a constant value λ (9.7, plus or minus 0.3, milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar].

The equation has been tested using historical data sources of GDP, world energy production, and CO2 emissions

+ This can be tested with various historical GDP statistics along with records of world total energy production and CO2 emissions. [Data sources include: World real GDP since 1970 (UN); Historical world GDP estimates since 1AD (Maddison, 2003); World total primary energy production since 1970 (DOE); and CO2 emissions (CDIAC)

+ This hypothesis is supported by the data to an extremely high degree of confidence.

What turns that piece of paper (currency) into a potential to do something is the milliwatts per dollar, as calculated in the chart below:

The next graph shows that money is power

The graph below shows statistics from the year 1700 onward for inflation-adjusted world GDP(P) Green line. The time integral of GDP, or wealth of civilization(C), is represented by the blue line which has increased by a factor of 6 or 7($300 trillion to $1700 trillion) since 1700. Bursts of growth are seen around 1880 and 1950 in the purple line(η) which is the annual percentage growth rate of world GDP, calculated by dividing the GDP(P) by the wealth of civilization(C). Today [2007] the world GDP is about 100 times larger than it was in 1970.

The growth of red line(a), primary energy consumption rate, is essentially moving in tandem with the wealth of civilization (blue line). This suggests that, fundamentally, money is power.

The black line represents the constant coefficient of the power of money λ (9.7, plus or minus 0.3, milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar).

How are emissions related to wealth?

+ It is the relation of energy consumption and the resultant emissions. Emission rates are fundamentally linked to the wealth of civilization:

+ You cannot reduce emission rates without reducing the “wealth” of civilization.

+ Wealth is energy consumption;

+ energy consumption is carbon dioxide emissions;

+ [Contrary to what Canadian PM Trudeau repeatedly says] Wealth cannot be decoupled [separated from] CO2 emissions without abandoning a fossil-fuel economy;

+ There are no other options.

There are only two ways to stabilize CO2 levels, and both are highly improbable

In order to just stabilize CO2 levels, you would have to decarbonize as fast as the current growth rate in energy consumption which would work out to about one nuclear power plant per day (or some other comparable non CO2-emitting energy supply).

If you look at atmospheric CO2 concentrations in parts per million by volume [ppmv] (from various sources including ice cores) and compare that to the world GDP going back to 2 A.D., the values increase pretty much in tandem through history:

To reduce CO2 emissions, something has to collapse

“If we want to reduce CO2, something has to collapse.”

In more recent years, the world GDP plotted against atmospheric CO2 shows an even more tight relationship between the two:

“You could just go to the top of Mauna Loa with a CO2 monitor and measure the size of the global economy to a high degree of accuracy.”

The positive feedback of building wealth in civilization

GDP is really just an abstract ability to increase our capacity to consume more energy in the future

Wealth is a representation of energy consumption rates. Real GDP is a representation of the growth rate in energy consumption rates. This cycle is fundamentally linked to physics through the parameter lambda λ (9.7 milliwatts per inflation-adjusted dollar).

GDP is really just an abstract representation of an ability to increase our capacity to consume more energy in the future.  That’s what the production really represents.

Civilization is always trying to expand its energy consumption to accumulate more wealth

Civilization is always trying to expand its energy consumption to accumulate more wealth, or reduce the cost of maintenance by improving energy efficiency. More available energy translates into more accumulated wealth which in turn requires more energy for maintenance, creating a vicious circle of unending growth. Energy conservation essentially does not help. The fear of contraction permeates every corner of the economy.

Increasing efficiency just accelerates economic growth and more energy consumption – pure madness

We could apply this to civilization. If we increase efficiency, it leads to accelerated growth and more energy consumption. This phenomenon is known as Jevon’s paradox, first noted in 1865.

Increased energy efficiency = feedback loop of building wealth = super exponential growth = accelerated CO2 emissions

Increased energy efficiency increases the positive feedback of building wealth in civilization which can lead to super exponential growth, and that leads to an ever accelerated increase of CO2 emissions.

Feedback loop (rate of return) has gone from 0.1% in 1700 to 2.2% per year

This feedback loop (rate of return) for building wealth in civilization has increased from about 0.1% per year in 1700 to 2.2% per year, the highest it’s ever been in history.

Sudden turning points for rate of return likely correspond to new energy reservoirs

As mentioned before, there are a couple of inflection points [turning points] in history for this rate of return, one in 1880 and another in 1950 which likely correspond to new energy reservoirs coming online. This means the problem is fundamentally a geologic problem. 1950-1970 was a boom time for the wealth rate of return.

Causes associated with current stagnant rate of return

+ This rate of return has been stagnant in recent years for the first time since the 1930’s, probably related to the current economic crisis.

+ The sheer size of modern civilization has vastly overshot the Earth’s regenerative abilities.

+ Biophysical limits on resource extraction are likely a major contributor to this stagnant rate of return.

+ The extraction of low-grade, dirty fossil fuels is a sign of civilization’s energy desperation.

Future Scenarios

Emissions Impossible

We‘re not really reducing CO2 emissions

We aren’t really decarbonizing. Perhaps we’re trying to, but not really.

Reducing carbon requires a rapid reduction in the size of maintained wealth

The model shows that reducing carbon requires a rapid reduction in the size of maintained wealth, as well as rapid abandonment of carbon-burning energy sources at the global rate of 300 GW of new non carbon-emitting power capacity—approximately one new nuclear power plant per day.

International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SPES) underestimates CO2 emission rates for given level of economic prosperity

“Extending the model to the future, the model suggests that the well-known IPCC SRES scenarios substantially underestimate how much CO2 levels will rise for a given level of future economic prosperity.

+ For one, global CO2 emission rates cannot be decoupled from wealth through efficiency gains.

+ For another, like a long-term natural disaster, future greenhouse warming can be expected to act as an inflationary drag on the real growth of global wealth.

+ For atmospheric CO2 concentrations to remain below a “dangerous” level of 450 ppmv, model forecasts suggest that there will have to be some combination of an unrealistically rapid rate of energy decarbonization and nearly immediate reductions in global civilization wealth.

+ Effectively, it appears that civilization may be in a double-bind. If civilization does not collapse quickly this century, then CO2 levels will likely end up exceeding 1000 ppmv; but, if CO2 levels rise by this much, then the risk is that civilization will gradually tend towards collapse.”

With business as usual (BAU) we’re headed for atmospheric CO2 level of about 1,200 parts per million

With business-as-usual, by 2100 the world GDP would be 10 times higher than today and the atmospheric CO2 would be around 1200 ppm

The developed countries like the U.S., Britain, and Europe have simply offshored their manufacturing base to China and elsewhere for the most part.

Summation – [There’s no way out]

“Theoretical and numerical arguments suggest that when growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to such externalities as natural disasters, and the risk is for an accelerating collapse”

Garrett’s latest paper “Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis” explains key components determining whether civilization can “innovate” itself toward faster economic growth through new energy reserve discovery, improvements to human and infrastructure longevity, and more energy efficient resource extraction technology.

+ Growth slows due to a combination of prior growth, energy reserve depletion, and a “fraying” of civilization networks due to natural disasters…

+ While growth must initially be positive for civilization to emerge, positive growth cannot be sustained forever.

+ Civilization networks are always falling apart, and presumably in a world with finite resources, we will eventually lose the capacity to keep fixing them.”

+ Future loss of useable Land and Water is already in the pipeline from all prior carbon emissions, and CO2 emissions continue to rise unabated.

+ “Whether collapse comes sooner or later depends on the quantity of energy reserves available to support continued growth and the accumulated magnitude of externally imposed decay…

+ Theoretical and numerical arguments suggest that when growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to such externalities as natural disasters, and the risk is for an accelerating collapse.”

***** END OF MIKE’S SUMMATION OF TIM GARRETT’S 2008 GROUNDBREAKING PAPER *****

Definitions of four key physics terms

energy – The property of matter and radiation which is manifest as a capacity to perform work (such as causing motion or the interaction of molecules).

power – The rate of doing work, measured in watts.

work – The exertion of force overcoming resistance or producing molecular change.

biophysics — The science of the application of the laws of physics to biological phenomena.

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