thumbnail from NYT
As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head. The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. In fact, the author says, “there really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.” And he goes on to ask, “why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”
Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. The succinct answer is that natural scientists are not comfortable with ruthless extrapolation of past trends.
Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.
The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.
Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?
So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth.
Electric Car: They Might Be Giants
Some time ago, the Chevy Volt attracted my attention. I think the plug-in hybrid concept hits the sweet spot for American drivers, and the Volt’s 35–40 mile electric-only range seemed to be the perfect number. A pure electric vehicle (EV) would not permit my wife’s periodic work-related jaunt to Pasadena, so any battery-powered solution for us must be of the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) variety. The problem, ultimately, was the high price tag (and the hump in the middle of the back seat occupied by the battery). Although I don’t self-identify as being in the “upper class,” our income edges us into the top quintile in the U.S. So for us to decide that the Volt costs too much—despite genuine enthusiasm—seemed to spell trouble (indeed, the average income of Volt owners was claimed to be $175,000). My conclusion was that electric/plug-in cars are out of reach, and could well remain so.
In April of this year, I became aware of the Ford plug-in, called the C-Max Energi (yes, with an “i” at the end!). The C-Max Energi has a 21 mile electric-only range, and gets an EPA rating of 43 miles per gallon (2.3 gal/100 mi; or 5.4 L/100 km). The price tag is approximately $6k cheaper than the Volt, and the back seat passed my wife’s approval. Nonetheless, after carefully considering the C-Max Energi as a replacement for our increasingly ailing car, we decided against springing for one: still too expensive. I was all set to write a Do the Math post to the tune of “Almost bit on a PHEV again.”
But the fact remained that our 11-year old 28 MPG car (bought used) has been costing us a fair bit in maintenance, its reliability increasingly dubious. Replacement loomed. Motivated by an upcoming long-haul road trip, we explored options again, looking at hybrids and the C-Max Energi. In the end—aided by a federal tax credit, a California rebate, and an unfathomably good offer that together knocked $9k off the MSRP—we drove an Energi off the lot under battery power.
It turns out that:
- the lifetime cost for the PHEV is still higher than other options we considered, but not prohibitively so given credits, rebates, and discounts;
- the CO2 emissions are cut in half in electric mode (considering upstream electricity production in our region);
- batteries still stink compared to liquid fuel, and likely always will.
We’ve all heard it. We think we understand it: entropy is a measure of disorder. Combined with the Second Law of Thermodynamics—that the total entropy of a closed system may never decrease—it seems we have a profound statement that the Universe is destined to become less ordered.
The consequences are unsettling. Sure, the application of energy can reverse entropy locally, but if our society enters an energy-scarce regime, how can we maintain order? It makes intuitive sense: an energy-neglected infrastructure will rust and crumble. And the Second Law stands as a sentinel, unsympathetic to deniers of this fact.
A narrative has developed around this theme that we take in low entropy energy and emit a high entropy wake of waste. That life displays marvelous order—permitted by continuous feeding of this low entropy energy—while death and decay represent higher entropy end states. That we extract low entropy concentrations of materials (ores) from the ground, then disperse the contents around the world in a higher entropy arrangement. The Second Law warns that there is no going back: at least not without substantial infusion of energy.
But wait just a minute! The preceding paragraph is mostly wrong! An unfortunate conflation of the concepts of entropy and disorder has resulted in widespread misunderstanding of what thermodynamic entropy actually means. And if you want to invoke the gravitas of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, you’d better make darned sure you’re talking about thermodynamic entropy—whose connection to order is not as strong as you might be led to believe. Entropy can be quantified, in Joules per Kelvin. Let’s build from there.
I have a confession to make. When we moved into our current house three years ago, we had to sell our clothes dryer due to gas/electric incompatibility (happens every time we move!). So we lived without a dryer for three years, hanging clothes out to dry, and generally being frugal about washing vs. re-wearing clothes. Well, after several weather-induced trips to the laundromat this winter, we (or can I lay this all at my wife’s feet?) finally broke down and bought a used washer/dryer set on Craigslist. We’ll still let the sun dry our clothes 95% of the time, but have other options now.
Even though this little vignette does relate to the common Do the Math theme of low-energy lifestyles, the actual point of bringing it up is that the washer/dryer came from a house that had just been on display as a model for energy efficiency—including the washer and dryer. At the house, we met Jason Beckman, of Classic Residential, Inc., who had carried out many of the efficiency upgrades to the house. I thought it would be instructive to have him perform an energy audit at our home—especially a blower door test to expose ventilation issues.
As a bonus, after the nominal audit activities were over, I was able to spend some quality time with the blower door, doing extensive tests in virtually every room in the house. What I found was certainly instructive for me, and hopefully will be useful to a broad audience as well.
Four golf-cart batteries used in my off-grid home PV system. Each is 12 V, 150 A-h, thus 1.8 kWh of storage.
All the metrics looked great. The 2.7-year-old lead acid batteries in my off-grid photovoltaic system appeared to have settled into a consistent mid-life performance. Monthly maintenance (equalizing, adding distilled water) promised to keep the batteries in prime condition for some time to come. Based on cycle depth, I expected another 2.5 years out of the present set of batteries. Life was good.
Then, during my absence over the course of Thanksgiving weekend, one of the batteries expired. No forewarning. Just gave up. A previous post expressed an overall disappointment in batteries, now reinforced by this sudden nosedive.
In this post, I’ll show the metrics on my system detailing the demise of “Battery E.” The gruesome graphics are intended for mature audiences.
If you want to make your house more efficient at repelling the unpleasantness outdoors (whether hot or cold), what should you do first? Insulate the walls? Insulate the ceiling? The roof? Better windows? Draft elimination? What has the biggest effect? While I have regrettably little practical experience tightening up a house (it’s on my bucket list), I at least do understand heat transfer from a physics/engineering perspective, and can walk through some insightful calculations. So let’s build a fantasy house and evaluate thermal tradeoffs at 1234 Theoretical Lane.
Star Trek brainiac
People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.
A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.
Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.
One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.
The futuristic survey (covered in last post) has attracted about 1300 respondents, 900 from DtM, 300 from the Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), and a smattering from other places.
I will ultimately be sharing the results, but the habitual readers of the aforementioned sites are perhaps not representative of the population at large.
Thus I would like your help in pushing this out to a broader population. See if you can get your friends and family members to take the survey, and perhaps even pass the link on to their friends, etc. I’ve never done this sort of thing before, so do not know what to expect. But let’s give it a try, yeah?
Here’s the link you want to pass on in whatever form (paste into e-mail, Twitter, link on FaceBook, whatever works): https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2ZC6RD9
Thanks for your help—should be very interesting.
One day, sitting around with a group of undergraduate physics students, I listened as one made the bold statement: “If it can be imagined, it can be done.” The others nodded in agreement. It sounded like wisdom. It took me all of two seconds to violate this dictum as I imagined myself jumping straight up to the Moon. I may have asked if the student really thought what he said was true, but resisted the impulse to turn it into an impromptu teaching moment. Instead, I wondered how pervasive this attitude was among physics students and faculty. So I put together a survey and in this post report what I found. The overriding theme: experts say don’t count on a Star Trek future. Ever.