Citizen Action Monitor

A fellow physicist finds Tim Garrett’s discoveries “surprising”, “impressive”, “insightful”, and “fascinating”

Garrett’s thesis is “elegant”, his hypothesis testable, and it succeeds! Alas, his work has been misunderstood by many.

No 2378 Posted by fw, October 3, 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

Dr. Richard Nolthenius

“Garrett has nothing to say about human extinction. Instead, he’s interpreted civilization as a manifestation of thermodynamic principles, inferred a close and simple relationship between the summed historical spending of civilization and its current required energy consumption rate, and verified it with real data. He’s derived a quantitative climate/economic model, identifying its key variables – which differ from those of traditional economic and IPCC modelling. He then shows such traditional models are missing key connections which impose important constraints on our possible climate actions. It is unfortunate that Garrett’s work has not gotten the wider reading it deserves.”Richard Nolthenius, Cabrillo College

Today’s repost, which appears below, was taken from a 319-page PDF report by Astrophysicist Dr. Richard Nolthenius, as was yesterday’s piece. The content and layout of Nolthenius’ PDF presentation is identical to his accompanying PowerPoint document, presumably used in his lectures. Don’t be fooled by the 319-page length of the file; it’s long because the content is in a 30-point font, and the headings are in a much larger, bold font. My repost, composed with Microsoft Word, covers, in 6 pages, the first 23 pages of Nolthenius’ PDF account.

It is clear from my title / subtitle of this repost that Dr. Nolthenius came away from his review of the work of University of Utah’s Atmospheric physicist Dr. Tim Garrett with both thumbs up. Dr. Nolthenius has the physics expertise that I lack — I am unable to conduct my own informed and critical assessment of Garrett’s cognitively challenging, peer-reviewed published papers. I have had to settle for popular articles by Garrett himself and by other popular writers and radio interviewers.

While I found Dr. Nolthenius’ glowing review of Garrett’s work challenging in places – particularly the calculus,  unfamiliar concepts of physics, dense text, and long chains of reasoning – I came away confident that I could place my trust in Garrett’s scholarship. At this point, the best I can aim for is a general understanding of Garrett’s big ideas.

I offer today’s repost as a partial sample of Nolthenius’ lengthy review of Garrett’s thinking on civilization as a thermodynamic system. Don’t be intimidated by the calculus; catch what you can and move along.

Below is the repost with my added subheadings, text highlighting, and some reformatting. Alternatively, to read the opening 23 pages in the original PDF format, click on the following linked title.


Civilization as a Thermodynamic System – Connecting Energy and Economics: Implications for What’s Possible by Richard Nolthenius, Cabrillo College, September 13, 2018 (Pages 1-23)

Nolthenius’ agenda for this report — Given the existential crisis we face

  • How drastic must policy actions be?
  • Is our goal to merely slow the descent into chaos, or is it rather to truly halt climate change?
  • What is physically possible?
  • Enter – the insightful discoveries of cloud physicist Prof. Tim Garrett

My Introduction to Tim Garrett

Was Garrett another one of these characters from the twisted “Near-Term Human Extinction” crowd?

I first heard of Garrett from arch-apocalypse believer of Near-Term Human Extinction Guy McPherson in 2014 when he came out to join, with me, a public panel discussion on climate change and the future, and who implied Garrett supported the idea that humans would go extinct because civilization was a “heat engine” and our own waste heat would cook us all.

That’s just crazy; the waste heat of industrial civilization is less than 1% of the heat we TRAP via our CO2 (Flanner 2009). In fact, too many of McPherson’s apocalypse claims are just twisted science, junk science or otherwise plain wrong.

So who WAS this Garrett fellow? Another from the human-extinction fringe? I told McPherson that I’d look into Garrett’s work, but this introduction didn’t motivate me to get right on it. It took a few months before I did.

When I finally began reading Garrett’s papers…

Garrett’s modelling revealed gaps in the modelling products of economists and IPCC scientists

… I was surprised and impressed. He’s not an advocate of the Near Term Human Extinction meme, nor of McPherson, and the “heat engine” reference was clearly misunderstood by McPherson (who is not a climate scientist and has no apparent background in thermodynamics).

Garrett has nothing to say about human extinction. Instead, he’s interpreted civilization as a manifestation of thermodynamic principles, inferred a close and simple relationship between the summed historical spending of civilization and its current required energy consumption rate, and verified it with real data. He’s derived a quantitative climate/economic model, identifying its key variables – which differ from those of traditional economic and IPCC modelling. He then shows such traditional models are missing key connections which impose important constraints on our possible climate actions.

It is unfortunate that Garrett’s work has not gotten the wider reading it deserves.

Let’s explore these discoveries…

Policymakers dealing with climate and energy issues appear not to understand the crucial importance of thermodynamics in their decision-making

“Learning about thermodynamics is a critical part of being an informed decision-maker in a democracy in dealing with our energy problems” — Dr. Thomas Homer Dixon, video of 2011 Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s Energy 2030 Summit lecture. (Quote begins at 1:10:40 point into the lecture)

Civilization as a Thermodynamic System

Garrett’s theoretical link to thermodynamics offers an insightful new synthesis with sobering implications

Garrett (2012) (and references therein) has developed a model of the relation between the global economy, primary energy consumption, and carbon emissions. The underlying approach has proven to have wide application across dynamical systems.

He applies thermodynamic thinking to the ordered system which is Civilization, and predicted a simple relation which is verified in real-world data.

His discovery of a simple global relation between energy consumption rates and the accumulated inflation-adjusted Gross World Product (GDP summed all countries summed over all time) and its theoretical link to thermodynamics is a unique and insightful new synthesis and has sobering implications.

Here’s my own framing of the logic in applying Thermodynamics to Civilization…

And this is where calculus comes in (catch as catch can and skip the rest)

In physical thermodynamics (remember your physics textbooks?)…

…In a “closed system”, the incremental change of energy dE, which includes internal energy, external energy being input, and including the Gibbs energy dW of useful energy (“work” W) which can be extracted from the system by the production of entropy S (“disorder”) at constant temperature T is related to entropy by dE = TdS

Taking the derivative with respect to time, we see that the rate of energy consumption is ~proportional to the rate of entropy change.

Now for Civilization…

The analog of “total energy” is called “Primary Energy Supply” in the databases: the raw energy provided by Nature.

Useful work accomplishes innate human values – powering the networks of our relationships to each other and to material things, and enhancement and growth of civilization.

The analog [correlate] for physical entropy S, is the amount of disorder Sc in the civilization + environment.

Growth in Civilization must correspond to a reduction in Civilization’s portion of Sc at the expense of greater Sc in the total environment system, powered by the expenditure of physical ENERGY).

Transforming Dis-Order towards Order takes ENERGY

It takes energy to reduce the natural tendency to decay and disorder and towards the order we seek   

Any economic spending to reduce disorder Sc is taking things from the way that they would have been in the natural tendency towards decay and disorder, towards the way we want them.

This means, from relative dis-order, towards increased order:

Order – in the form of new and stronger networks linking people, energy, systems, and materials. Order – in the form of enhanced relationships, flow of materials, information, and energy in supporting enhanced growth, and hence larger energy consumption rates.

Garrett’s Key Observation

Conventional economics’ big mistake – the role of energy was overlooked

Conventional economics divides Civilization’s value into Capital (“things” and money) and Labor.

But “capital” per se is static, dead, and valueless without energy to power its USE.

Life is Motion. Stillness, is death, and valueless. And Motion requires ENERGY. Value in any human meaningful sense, must then be intimately linked to energy consumption rates.

No energy? Then no action, and no accomplishing the essentials of life. And so – no value

Energy is LIFE. And yet it is given no central role in conventional economics.

In Civilization’s Market Economy…

Spending in general, has a close relationship to Cost, given competition and hence finite profit margins. We infer, then, that cost is proportional to the amount of change needing to be effected upon our physical and mental states to achieve our civilized “ordering” goals.

Laborious, time-consuming effort to make a high reduction in Civilization’s entropy Sc therefore incurs high cost, and requires proportional high physical ENERGY consumption to power it.

Looked at this way …

Humanity’s biological, psychological, and material desires drive personal and civilization’s growth

… it would seem quite natural and even inevitable that, within the human desires for enhanced networks and personal as well as civilization growth, that…

Therefore, spending will be proportional to the physical energy consumption rates to support growth today

Total inflation-adjusted past spending (meaning, corrected for mis-pricing due to non-commensurate money supply growth or wealth destruction) should be proportional to the physical ENERGY consumption rates required to support it today.

That’s my re-framing of Garrett’s insightful work.

Alas, His Work has been Misunderstood by Many.

Economists are rarely adept in dealing with thermodynamics

Perhaps not surprising because he straddles economics and thermodynamics, and economists are rarely adept in dealing with thermodynamics, nor adeptly fair-minded (apparently)* at reading objectively an economics-outsider’s work in this cross-disciplinary area. [*Garrett’s response to criticism].

And “turf-guarding” is not uncommon in academia

Worse; petty turf-guarding unfortunately has too many precedents (e.g. Alfred Wegner stepping on geologists’ toes with “Continental Drift”, astronomers discovering what paleontologists did not – the K-Pg extinction caused by asteroid impact), and smaller examples from people I know, and also being the victim of such myself).

I have more than a passing interest in economic / political theory, and with human nature’s boundaries, and I find his [Garrett’s] work fascinating…

What, really, is possible? And what, really, is necessary to halt our climate decline? Let’s take a quantitative look…

The Garrett Relation (my term; because it badly needs a short-hand):

The Sum Total of all Past Inflation-Adjusted Gross World Product (GWP), (Garrett calls this sum “Wealth”) is directly proportional to the Current Rate of Primary Energy Consumption Required to Maintain its Value Today.

This is raw primary energy from any source.

Now, the CO2 production per unit energy consumed (the “carbonization” c) can, of course, change by human decision and efforts, so let this be a variable in the quantitative relationships.

“We must recognize the FULL costs of our energy to power Civilization”

The relevant energy in this relation is PRIMARY Energy. Energy in raw form provided by Nature. Why? Nature only gives us PRIMARY energy. We must then invest money, effort and additional energy in converting it to useful energy. Graphs showing improving efficiency but don’t use PRIMARY energy are misleading. Only about 1/3 of primary energy ends up as useful energy. In other words, we must recognize the FULL costs of our energy to power Civilization.

Using “processed energy” in calculations can be cheery but unrealistic in terms of “true cost”

Looking at promotional graphs which only present our progress in terms of processed energy (e.g. electricity) will be cheery, but unrealistic in true cost.


It’s an Elegant Thesis

The theoretical basis for the equations he [Garrett] derives follow from thermodynamics – the principles and equations governing the flow of heat, entropy, and energy, and their relation to generating useful work (see Garrett 2014)

Maintaining Civilization requires a battle against the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

Maintaining Civilization requires a battle against the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (the decay of ordered (i.e. low entropy) energy into disordered (high entropy) energy. The ultimate in disordered energy is heat – the energy of the random motion of atoms and molecules in a substance.

Energy must be taken from a low-entropy “ordered” state, and “disordered” in the act of getting useful work from that energy. Useful work meaning… make things, repair things, grow food, write a symphony … anything useful at all)

Garrett’s Climate and Thermodynamics Economic Response Model (CThERM ), a computational model which results from this, has been successfully back-tested against a history of past data, and shows high skill scores when given past data, significantly better than scores using extrapolations of trends.

This hypothesis is testable, and it succeeds…

Historical energy consumption rate (power) and total accumulated Wealth, plotted on top of each other for clarity. Result? They’re directly proportional; i.e. the ratio (black curve) is flat. λ=7.1 mW of power is required to support every dollar (inflation-adjusted to 2005) of GWP ever spent.

The Garrett Relation Simplified: “Power is Proportional to Wealth”

“The ratio of these two quantities remained essentially unchanged in each year between 1970 and today (2010), with a standard deviation of just 3% over a time period when wealth increased by 111% and GWP increased by 238%” (Garrett 2014).

Let’s look in more detail why should this hold…

But first: There’s a very DIFFERENT ratio – the current primary energy consumed per unit of CURRENT GDP. Now THAT ratio HAS been improving, decreasing fully 32% (but using PPP accounting, more on that later) since 1990. Some economists accidentally or deliberately conflate these two, then wrongly dismiss the Garrett Relation.

Why does the Garrett Relation hold? First, the larger an economy, the more energy required merely to maintain its current state against natural decay.

Wealth is not merely in existing goods – it is total accumulated spending over all time.

Obvious, yes. But even the goods and services long gone in the distant past were essential in order to grow into what we are today. So, properly appreciated, relevant “Wealth” is not merely in existing goods – it is total accumulated spending over all time.

More important, it’s not in things themselves, which require maintenance (repair, etc.), but rather it is the continuing relationship networks which are enhanced between things and people which constitute the “wealth”. Enhanced relationships, is the value of that spending, and constitutes the real Wealth. And it is along networks where frictional energy is consumed.

Wealth: It is to be found in the Enhanced Relationship Networks Created

Garrett uses the example of a road. Its value is in the efficiency with which it provides so many opportunities to expand countless relationships through its existence. Less tangibly, a symphony can inspire, energize, and promote enhanced relationships if it touches our core spiritual values and enhances our desire to live fully.

Big Mistake — Conventional economic models ignore energy and consider “capital” as holding social value

Unlike traditional economic models, which ignore energy and consider “capital” as holding the value, Garrett realized that static objects (capital) actually have no inherent value.

“Capital”’ has value only when it is in USE…

In motion. In action. In relationship, to human beings and to other objects along networks of connection.

And all MOTION requires ENERGY.

Take away the ENERGY, and therefore all VALUE disappears.

And all MOTION, whether resulting in useful work or not, will entail frictional losses, and so a continuous supply of new energy is required to maintain the value. And additional energy beyond that, is needed to grow that value.

Electrons through wires, fluid through pipes, blood through arteries, people in cars, trains and ships. Only in the dissipation of that energy is value made manifest, even in the construction of information out of randomness, energy is dissipated.

Energy Dissipation Happens Along Civilization’s Networks

Garrett’s relationships are subtle, often non-physical, not obvious, emergent – and not easy for ordinary folks to grasp

Because these relationships are subtle, often non-physical, and extend in countless directions not obvious at first, there is a quality of “emergence” to them which enhances their value beyond the most obvious initial physical connections one might consider.

Thus, the global rate of primary energy consumption should be proportional not to current GWP (GWP = Gross World Product), but to the total inflation-adjusted ACCUMULATED spending of the world over all time. There is a “ghost” remaining for every dollar spent, even on things long since decayed and gone. That “ghost” exists in having enabled current Civilization through past efforts.

The GOAL of human action is to expand human life, in all the many ways that word can be interpreted. Seen this way, the Garrett Relation appears quite natural.


Richard Nolthenius’ home page

PowerPoint Presentations for Astro 7: Planetary Climate Science

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