And if, after reading his article, you had difficulty understanding Garrett’s chain of reasoning, you’re not alone.
No 2394 Posted by fw, November 12, 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
“Right now, energy consumption is continuing to grow rapidly, sustaining an ever larger GWP [Gross World Product]. But it is not the rate of energy consumption that supports the GWP, but the rate of growth of energy consumption that supports the GWP. This important distinction is flat out frightening. The implication is that if we cease to grow energy and raw material consumption globally, then the global economy must collapse. But if we don’t cease to grow energy consumption and raw material consumption, then we still collapse due to climate change and environmental destruction. Is there no way out?” —Tim Garrett, Nephologue
Above is the concluding passage of Tim Garrett’s article, reposted in full below.
His conclusion is crystal clear: Humanity is caught in a double bind, ending in global economic collapse. There’s no way out — To paraphrase:
As clear as the conclusion is, most folks will surely find that Garrett’s chain of reasoning leading to his conclusion is not always easy to understand. Consider, for example, this single sentence midway through his article:
“High potential primary energy resources like oil and coal sustain civilization’s circulations against dissipation of waste heat.”
If you have trouble understanding this sentence, then you may be able to sympathize with the problem I have been having trying to promote Garrett’s ideas to environmental NGOs and publishers of progressive online news and information sources. I suspect that Garrett’s writings present too much of a cognitive challenge for them, their readers, donors and advertisers. (See, for example, my post: I’m discovering that Garrett’s “civilization collapse” message is a tough sell, with no takers so far. How come?)
Calculus and math aside, what does make physics-based explanations so hard for people to understand? To paraphrase, here is one explanation that reflects my thinking:
“What makes physics hard for you to understand is the fact that there’s no conceptual context for you to put the information into. For instance, if I tell you that Las Vegas is further west than Los Angeles, you immediately understand what I said because you understand the spatial concepts of east and west. But, if I tell you that weight and mass are different things, and that weight is actually force exerted by the mass of an object due to the acceleration of gravity, you might not understand what I have told you because concepts such as ‘mass’, ‘weight’ and ‘acceleration’ don’t have any real meaning to you.”
Below is my repost of Tim Garrett’s article, with added subheadings. In an effort to extract as much meaning as I can from challenging texts, I find that adding subheadings forces me to translate Garrett’s writing into words that reflect my understanding of what I think he means — Granted, of course, that my words may not accurately capture Garrett’s intended meaning.
In addition to a repost of Garrett’s article, I have also reposted, at the bottom of this post, a selection of readers’ comments including three comments by Garrett. Incidentally, the comments by the reader who calls himself “Stainless Steel Rick” is, in fact, Astronomy Professor Dr. Richard Nolthenius, who wrote an article about Garrett that I reposted on this website under the title: A fellow physicist finds Tim Garrett’s discoveries “surprising”, “impressive”, “insightful”, and “fascinating”
To read Tim’s article on his website Nephologue, click on the following linked title.
[With apologies for the poor quality of the graph, which is copied from Tim Garrett’s article]
British Petroleum provides some pretty nice tools for visualizing energy consumption like the figure above which drives home effectively the point of just how fast our demand for energy is growing, roughly quadrupling in the past 50 odd years.
Our ability to work rests on the availability of energy – So why is energy not also an essential ingredient in traditional macro-economic models?
In order to understand this growth better, I think it’s important to ask why we need energy in the first place. This may seem like a pretty bone-headed question — of course we need energy. But energy is not an essential ingredient in traditional macro-economic models. In the best case, energy is treated as a quantity that can be “substituted” for other ingredients of the global economy as capital and labor.
As a physicist, this seems totally nuts as our individual ability to work rests on the availability of energy. We’re not somehow divorced from the laws of the universe. I’ve never heard of someone being an effective element of the labor force who had completely ceased to eat. And food sure doesn’t materialize without work being done.
Garrett makes the case that civilization should be treated as a “thermodynamic heat engine” – But what does that mean?
Instead, I think it’s appropriate to treat civilization as a what can be termed a thermodynamic heat engine.
Mechanical heat engines consumes energy in gasoline at high temperatures, dissipating waste heat at low temps – in cyclic motion, pistons go up with high temps and down with low temps
The idea of a heat engine was first envisioned by French engineers in the early 1800s. In a car, work is done to propel a car forward by consuming the chemical energy in gasoline at high temperatures and dissipating it as waste heat at low temperatures with the pistons moving up and down in between.
Similarly, humans consume energy from food, and in cyclic motion we release energy inside our bodies at high temps to perform work, and dissipate waste heat at lower temps to the outside of our bodies
In one way, we’re very similar. We consume energy to go through the cyclic motions of going to and from work and the grocery store, sending out internet search requests, and pumping our hearts. All these actions require a temperature gradient where energy is released at high temperatures and dissipate at cold temperatures, whether with our cars, our computers, or the gradient from the inside to exteriors of our bodies.
Analogously, human civilization can be seen as a superorganism: it consumes primary energy to engage in its internal cyclic motions, ultimately dissipating waste heat to the cooler atmosphere and out to space
In fact, we can see all of human civilization as a “super-organism” that consumes primary energy to engage in all of its internal circulations, ultimately radiating waste heat to the atmosphere and then to cool of space.
High potential fossil fuel energy sources sustain civilization’s cyclic motions against the dissipation of its waste heat
High potential primary energy resources like oil and coal sustain civilization’s circulations against dissipation of waste heat. ‘Useless’ energy ultimately flows to space through the cold planetary blackbody temperature of 255 K. In between lies civilization, including people, their activities, and all their associated circulations, whether or not they are part of the GDP.
The difference between human civilization and mechanical processes is that civilization grows, expanding its thermodynamic engine, which drives growth
A key difference between human civilization and a car is that it can grow. By growing, its thermodynamic engine expands. A larger engine consumes more, dissipates more, and does work ever faster. This positive feedback provides a recipe for exponential growth.
In order to grow, civilization consumes a little more energy than it dissipates
Civilization uses energy consumption mostly to sustain existing circulations. A small fraction is also used to grow civilization through an incorporation of new raw materials (e.g. iron and wood) into its structure. Thermodynamically, this is possible only if civilization consumes a little more energy than it dissipates. A small fraction of the energy that is consumed is available to incorporate raw materials to build civilization.
Garrett uses the analogy of human growth to clarify the meaning of the previous paragraph
We’re actually pretty familiar with this. If we eat too much we get fat. I’m told that consuming an extra 3500 calories beyond what we need leads to a pound of weight gain. This is the energy required for the body to turn food into flesh. A child consumes food today in some proportion to the child’s body mass. The child experiences a production of mass if there is a convergence of energetic flows such that it dissipates less heat than is contained in the food energy eaten. The child’s current size is directly a consequence of an accumulation of prior mass production. Its current rate of food consumption is also a consequence of prior production. As the child grows it eats more. As the child approaches adulthood, the disequilibrium between consumption and dissipation narrows, and (hopefully!) the production of new mass stalls.
Economic production (expressed as GDP) grows only when energy consumption is greater than the rate that civilization dissipates energy
So economic production, or the GDP, can be seen as the consequence of this imbalance: production is positive only when primary energy consumption is greater than the rate at which civilization dissipates energy due to all it’s internal circulations. If production is positive, civilization is able to incorporate raw materials into its structure. It grows, and then uses the added population and infrastructure created with the materials to consume even more energy.
I think this is what is happening with the BP statistics. Because the GWP [Gross World Product] exists, we grow, and then use our growth to access more energy which we can then consume with the higher infrastructure demands. The relevant equation is that every 1000 dollars of year 2005 inflation-adjusted gross world product requires 7.1 additional Watts of power capacity to be added, independent of the year that is considered.
Right now, energy consumption is continuing to grow rapidly, sustaining an ever larger GWP
Right now, energy consumption is continuing to grow rapidly, sustaining an ever larger GWP.
But it’s the RATE OF GROWTH OF ENERGY CONSUMPTION that supports the GWP
But it is not the rate of energy consumption that supports the GWP, but the rate of growth of energy consumption that supports the GWP.
This important distinction is frightening because it means “the global economy must collapse”
This important distinction is flat out frightening. The implication is that if we cease to grow energy and raw material consumption globally, then the global economy must collapse. But if we don’t cease to grow energy consumption and raw material consumption, then we still collapse due to climate change and environmental destruction.
Is there no way out? [I highly recommend a reading of the Abstract to the paper by Garrett]
Stainless Steel Rick August 17, 2018 at 4:38 PM
Is there a way out? The usual response from eco-friendlies is “Sure! We just convert to renewables and climate will not collapse us!”. My response to them is – sounds great… but the numbers just don’t pencil out. Nature’s laws are not normative, their quantitative. And they are absolutely inviolate. Converting to renewables itself takes energy and when you attempt to factor that in, given the bloated fossil fueled civilization that we are stuck with as our t=0 initial conditions, then it looks pretty darn hard to find a graceful exit. It’s possible perhaps, but only if we become different animals than we seem to be. The qualitative difference between what is needed, and what is the usual assumed path, is that what’s needed is a big dose of Civilization Pain, and THAT we absolutely won’t tolerate voluntarily. So it looks like it’ll instead be involuntarily. It is physically possible for all 7 billion of us “get religion” and immediately go on a massively Spartan lifestyle change diet, meanwhile diverting every spare dollar to decarbonizing. But will we? Very hard to imagine it actually happening. Instead, we elect demagogues and “strong men” who will tell us what we would rather hear, rather than the Truth. And meanwhile, the sequestered carbon in soils, vegetation, the ocean, the permafrost… will be re-awakening and re-emerging to make up for the carbon we imagine we’ll stop burning. We’ll now have to built massive infrastructure and consume new energy (solar? wind?) to air-capture CO2 and push it back down from where it came from, and quickly, to shut off these feedbacks.
Tim Garrett August 20, 2018 at 10:17 AM
I’m only half joking when I say I expect to see an abrupt shift towards fascism as a means for enforcing the austerity required for collective survival. Surely there are historians who have explored whether and how political systems reflect resource availability and environmental conditions.
Stainless Steel Rick October 3, 2018 at 4:03 PM
yeah, except the fascists will enforce austerity not for OUR collective survival but to support THEIR kleptocracy. If your point is that they may commandeer this argument as a means to justify instituting fascism, at this point nothing would surprise me.
Ian Graham September 3, 2018 at 11:09 AM
For why TG’s theory has gotten so little traction in 10 years, see Ugo Bardi on the Peer Review process and his own description of the travesty he endured when he first submitted his papery. Bardi at https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2018/08/so-you-think-science-will-save-world.html
Tim Garrett September 4, 2018 at 2:39 PM
From a thermodynamics perspective, civilization is an open system that survives by converting high potential energy (or low entropy) density fuels into low potential (or high entropy) density waste heat. It is the continual conversion of one to another that sustains all that we do, including our thoughts, thereby defining our wealth – our collective capacity to think and do.
Lidia17September 5, 2018 at 8:35 PM
As far as I understand thermodynamics, though, there is no “pushing CO2 back where it came from” without expending even more energy than that which was obtained from its release. I’d be interested to learn differently.
Tim Garrett September 6, 2018 at 8:36 AM
Roughly. Your argument is strictly true if the goal were to return CO2 to its original form as a fossil fuel. If it is converted to another solid or liquid form, then the chemistry can allow for this being done using less energy than was obtained during the initial release. Either way, the amount of energy is significant enough as to likely be prohibitive economically.
James September 6, 2018 at 5:22 AM
It seems that returns to capital are being fabricated by financial institutions to give the impression of growth. Even though things may be slowly collapsing even now in certain areas, central banks blowing asset bubbles and media propaganda can give the impression of “all is well”. Of course, most people on the ground will experience some dissonance between their real lives and the message. You may find some discussion at www.megacancer.com interesting, but it’s not peer reviewed and if it had to be, it wouldn’t exist.
Stainless Steel Rick October 3, 2018 at 4:09 PM
Nate Hagens makes the valid point that all “growth” these days is really paid for by debt. However, in the civilization thermodynamics sense, that doesn’t matter. It’s still spending in service of taking things to a lower entropy form that must then be forever supported against decay. So yeah. Not only do we get stuck with the energy bill for this, but gotta repay the principal and interest since we’re borrowing it from future generations. Maybe the “good” news is that they may not survive to hound us for collection! What a world we live in.
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