Collapse, you say? Part 2: Inputs and Outputs

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on September 29, 2020

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The title of this series of posts comes from the typical reaction you get when suggesting that our civiiization might be collapsing, "Collapse you say, surely not!" In my last post I said that I am convinced it is already happening or at least will happen at some point soon. Then I went on to explain what I mean by collapse—the process by which a civilization declines in its ability to provide the necessities of life to its members, the end result being that people are forced to fend for themselves or perish.

It seems to me that this is in fact happening today—that for all but a tiny minority at the "top", things are getting continually worse. The how and why of this process is the subject of this post and the ones that follow it.

The means of production and distribution that provide us with the necessities of life in modern industrial civilization require certain inputs and produce certain outputs. Today I want to the look at the problems posed in acquiring those inputs and disposing of those outputs.

I would guess that it's clear that by inputs I mean the energy and materials required to make the things we need. But what I mean by outputs may be less clear. I am not referring to the goods that are produced from the inputs, but the waste products produced in the process and the garbage that is left over when we are done using those goods.

But why should these inputs and outputs constitute problems?

Conventional thinking has our civilization in a box, separate from our planet and its ecosphere. The inputs (energy and materials) our civilization uses come from sources that are seen as essentially infinite and the outputs (waste heat and waste materials) are discharged into sinks that are also seen as being essentially infinite in size. Given all that, no reason is seen for progress—economic growth in this context—not continuing for the foreseeable future. This way of looking at things typifies some of the blind spots of modern thinking on economics and business.

Figure 1

Figure 1 illustrates what I am talking about. As long as there were relatively few people on our planet, and they weren't consuming excessively, it's easy to see how we might have looked at things this way. But now that we are well on our way to filling up the planet—or more likely well beyond that point—this is no longer valid. And sure, many people are aware that this is a very unrealistic picture, but the people who are running things, even those who verbally acknowledge the realities, continue to act as if there are no limits built into the system. In a future post we'll look at why this is so, but for now it suffices to say that it truly is the case.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is a different diagram, which provides a more realistic depiction of things as they exist today.

First of all, our civilization exists on a finite planet, entirely within that planet's ecosphere, with no real separation from it (note the dashed border). Our inputs are taken from that finite source and our wastes are discharged back into that same finite space, used as a sink for waste heat and all our material wastes. This has some truly nasty consequences.

Inputs and outputs come in two forms: energy and materials. Energy flows from more concentrated to less concentrated forms, and regardless of where it comes from, is eventually radiated away from the planet as waste heat. Because of this, at any one level, we only get to use energy once. Materials stay around and can be reused, but generally change from more organized forms to less organized, (and less useful) forms as time passes.

For the planet itself, on the relatively short timescales we are considering, the only significant inputs and outputs are in the form of energy—sunlight in and waste heat out. This means that the planet isn't a closed system and incoming energy can be used to arrange matter into more complex forms, converting the energy used to a less concentrated form in the process. That's the good news—the rest of the news is bad.

Outputs

Let's look at outputs first, since that will make it easier to understand some of the problems with inputs. As I said, the outputs I am talking about are the wastes from processes within our society, and the garbage left over when we are done with the products of those processes. We simply throw these things away, but the trouble is that there is no such place as "away". The sinks into which we dispose of wastes are part of the very same environment where we get our inputs from, so this is much like shitting in our own nest. And in a great many cases it is not necessary at all. Many of these end products could, with relatively little effort, be fed back into the processes, and not treated as "wastes" at all.

That we haven't "circularized" our use of materials is a really bad sign. Why we continue to do this is inherent to the internal workings of our civilization and I'll go into the details of that in a future post. For now it is sufficient to understand that as long as that civilization exists in its present form, it's outputs will continue to be a problem.

There are a great many different types of pollution, but for our purposes today I'll concentrate on two particular type of waste—carbon dioxide and methane.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced in the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, and in the processes we use to make things like steel and concrete, essential building materials of our civilization. CO2 is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and consequently climate change, and is also the cause of ocean acidification.

Methane (natural gas, CH4) has been touted as a replacement for coal and oil since it gives off less (but not zero) CO2 when burned. But it is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Between the wellhead and where it is used a great deal of methane leaks into the atmosphere—probably enough to overshadow any reduction in CO2 released by burning natural gas instead of other fossil fuels. Methane is also produced during the decay of organic matter and by the digestive systems of many animals. Warming due to climate change is releasing methane currently trapped in permafrost and in methane clathrate hydrates at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, further intensifying the warming process.

Ocean acidification the lesser known evil twin of climate change, occurs when CO2 is dissolved in water. An estimated 30–40% of the carbon dioxide from human activity released into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes. Some of it reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. Some of the resulting carbonic acid molecules dissociate into a bicarbonate ion and a hydrogen ion, thus increasing ocean acidity (H+ ion concentration).

Increasing acidity is thought to have a range of potentially harmful consequences for marine organisms such as depressing metabolic rates and immune responses in some organisms and causing coral bleaching. A net decrease in the amount of carbonate ions available may make it more difficult for marine calcifying organisms, such as coral and some plankton, to form biogenic calcium carbonate, and such structures become vulnerable to dissolution. Ongoing acidification of the oceans may threaten food chains linked with the oceans.

(Thanks to Wikipedia for the last two paragraphs.)

These are food chains that we sit at the top of, with many people, especially in poorer nations, relying heavily on seafood for protein.

Climate change has been in the news a lot lately, with a wide range of people expressing concern about its negative effects on our future. If, despite this, you are still a doubter or denier, you're in the wrong place on the internet, and need not bother leaving any comments. In my experience, if you scratch a climate change denier, you will find beneath the surface a rich person who is worried about losing their privilege.

So, climate change is real and it is driven by increases in greenhouse gases (CO2 and CH4 among others) in the atmosphere which cause the planet to retain more of the sun's heat. It has also been called "global warming", since it causes the overall average temperature of the planet to going up. The high latitudes in particular are already experiencing temperature increases. Eventually this is going to cause enough melting of glaciers to make for a significant increase in sea level.

In the meantime, climate change is also causing more frequent and heavier storms, which combined with even small increases in sea level, are causing a lot of damage along the oceans' shores. Such storms are also causing more frequent and serious flooding of many rivers.

Climate change is also intensifying droughts in many other areas, and in some of those areas this is leading to wild fires.

How does all this tie into collapse?

Storm surges, high winds, river flooding and wild fires are doing a great deal of damage to human settlements, at a time when our economy is struggling and the added cost of rebuilding can scarcely be afforded. Especially since we tend to rebuild in the same areas, leaving rebuilt settlements just as exposed as they were before.

The effects of climate change on agriculture are even more serious. In the ten or so millennia since we started practicing agriculture the climate on this planet has been particularly friendly to that endeavour. Farmers have been able to count on reliable temperatures and rainfall. This is now starting to change and as the rate of that change picks up over the coming decades, it is going to be very challenging to adapt to. This at a time when we are struggling to keep up to the demands of a growing and ever more affluent population for food and when there is little left in the way of wilderness to expand our farms into.

Even if climate change was the only problem we faced, it is serious enough to place the continued survival of our species into question. We are facing, to quote Jem Bendell, "inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction."

The threat of climate change is serious enough that most people who worry about such things at all are concentrating on it alone. Unfortunately, they are largely ignoring looming problems with the inputs required by our civilization.

Inputs

The problem with inputs is "resource depletion". We live on a finite planet and we can really access only a small part of it—the lower part of the atmosphere, the oceans and a few thousand feet at the top of the crust. Within that volume, there are finite supplies of the resources that we rely on.

Several problems result from the way we access and use those resources.

We generally access the lowest hanging fruit first. This means that the most convenient, easily accessible and highest quality resources get used up first. That makes sense as far as it goes, but it means as time goes by we are forced to use less easily accessible and lower quality resources. This takes more energy and more complex equipment, and is more costly.

Many of the resources we rely on are non-renewable—there is a finite amount of them on this planet, and "they" aren't making any more. Further, we use them in very wasteful ways. It is important to be aware here that, even at best, there is always some irreducible waste in our use of any resource, but currently we tend to make things, use them once and throw them "away". This means that depletion of many resources is happening thousands of times more quickly than it really needs to, and as I said in the section on outputs, that waste is accumulating in the environment.

Some of the resources we use are renewable, but the processes by which they are renewed work at a limited rate. We are using many of these so called renewable resources at greater than their replacement rate, and so they too are becoming depleted.

Conventional economists will tell you that when a resource starts to get rare, its price goes up, encouraging the development of substitutes. This is true to some limited extent, but many of the most critical resources simply have no viable substitutes. Not unless we are willing to make significant and unwelcome changes to the way we live.

At this point, we should look at some specific resources and the unique problems each of them presents.

Energy, Fossil fuels

Despite what conventional economists would tell you, energy (not money) is actually the keystone resource for our economy. Nothing happens inside our civilization without energy as an input and degraded energy (waste heat) as an output. Money functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value, all of which is very useful, but energy is what makes the economy function and grow. About 80% of that energy currently comes from fossil fuels (primarily coal, oil and natural gas). The remaining 20% comes from sources that we can only access using equipment that is both made using fossil fuels and powered by them.

So, our civilization is utterly dependent on having a cheap and abundant supply of fossil fuels. "Peak Oil" enthusiasts have been saying for decades now that we'll soon run out of oil and things will come to a grinding halt. In fact, though, there are still large quantities of hydrocarbons to be found in the earth's crust, so you might ask, "What's the problem?"

Well, there are two problems with continuing to burn fossil fuels.

One is the consequences for the climate of burning hydrocarbons and releasing ever larger amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is a very serious problem, for which we are having trouble finding and implementing any sort of solution.

The other problem, I'll be calling it "the surplus energy problem", is in many ways more complex and more serious.

Because we use various forms of technology to access energy, many people think that technology makes energy, and with improved technology we can always make more energy. Or, in this case, access the difficult to access hydrocarbons that currently remain in the ground. But in fact, the opposite is true—technology uses energy and won't work without it.

The energy that remains after we've powered the processes used to acquire that energy is referred to as "surplus energy." For instance, the technology used to drill oil wells and pump crude oil out of the ground uses energy. Back in the day, it used to take the energy equivalent of about one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground, leaving a surplus energy equivalent to 99 barrels of oil. This is usually expressed as "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI), in this case 100/1, giving an EROEI of 100. Another way of looking at this is to talk about the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). In this case that would be 1/100, or 1%. Note that both these numbers are just bare numbers without units, and most significantly without a dollar sign in front of them. The "money cost" of energy is another thing entirely and since it is influenced by speculation on future supply and by fluctuations in demand (as we have seen in 2020 during the pandemic) it is not a reliable indicator of the actual cost of energy in energy terms, or the future availability of energy.

Conventional oil discoveries have not been keeping up with depletion for some time and our use of conventional oil actually peaked in the last few years. So we have been forced to switch to lower quality and more difficult to access sources. Conventional oil today has an EROEI ranging from 10 to 30. Tight oil and gas (from fracking), heavy oil and the "dilbit" (diluted bitumen) made from tar sands all have EROEIs less than 5, or ECoEs of 20% or greater.

"So what?" you might say. As long as the net amount of energy available is sufficient to power our civilization, what's the problem? Well, it's not just the amount of energy available from any particular source that really counts, but the EROEI. Or more precisely the weighted average of the EROEIs of all the various energy sources an economy uses. That number needs to be around 15 or more to keep that economy growing.

When the average EROEI goes below 15, growth slows and eventually stops and it becomes difficult to raise enough capital to even maintain existing infrastructure. Why our civilization needs to grow is a topic for another day, but it certainly does. This is what most people are missing about energy. Yes, a country can use debt to finance access to low EROEI energy resources in order to keep the economy going. But only for a while, until its economy contracts to the point where things begin to fall apart. This is certainly the case in the US. Fracking has made sufficient energy available, at what seems like a reasonable dollar price, but the real economy is mysteriously contracting, and debt is continually growing. Both economists and politicians, while putting on a brave face, are hard pressed to do anything about it, because they don't understand the surplus energy problem.

As we saw in the section on "Outputs", there are pressing reasons not to continue burning fossil fuels. But even if that were not the case, it would not be possible to continue running a growth based industrial civilization on the low EROEI fossil energy sources now available to us. For this reason alone, collapse seems like a sure thing to me, and I would say it has been underway since oil production in the continental U.S. peaked in the early 1970s.

But, you may say, what about renewable energy sources? Like non-conventional fossil fuels there are large amounts of energy available from sources like hydro, biomass, wind, solar and so forth. A great many people today believe that renewables can replace fossil fuels and solve both our surplus energy and climate change problems. In fact it has become very unpopular to challenge that idea, but I am afraid I must do just that.

This post ened up at over 6000 words long, enough to try the patience of even my most loyal readers. So I have split it in two at this point, leaving the second half for my next post, which will pick up from here and cover renewable energy sources, ecosystem services and fossil water.



Links to the rest of this series of posts, Collapse, you say?

 

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