John Thackara | Essays

A Reading List for Mr. Monti

When the new Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Mario Monti, gave his acceptance speech to the Italian Senate before Christmas, he used the word "growth" 28 times and the word "energy" — well, zero times. Why would this supposed technocrat neglect even to mention the biophysical basis of the world's economy? Well, Mr. Monti is better described as a theocrat, than a technocrat. His main job is to keep us all believing in the impossible: an economy that expands to infinity in a finite world. It's important that we stay mesmerised: once we stop believing in his make-believe world it will all come crashing down.

Perhaps that's what happening now. I've spent the last couple of weeks immersed in a pile of texts on what actuaries, physicists and mathematicians have to say about the relationship between the economy and energy. (My homework is for a talk I'm giving in Philly at the end of the month at a seminar about architecture and energy.) I haven't finished the talk yet but I thought, as an exercise, that I'd share with you (and Mr. Monti) the ten best writers of my reading list.

1. Tom Murphy — Do the Math
If you suspect, but cannot prove, that modern life simply does not add up, you'll love Tom Murphy's work. "My focus, as a physicist, is to understand whether the impossibility of indefinite physical growth (i.e. in energy, food, manufacturing) means that economic growth in general is also fated to end or reverse" explains this University of California professor. His writing is full of dry but stunning asides: "If you object that exponentials are unrealistic, then we’re in agreement. But such growth is the foundation of our current economic system, so we need to explore the consequences" or, "The artificial world that must be envisioned to keep economic growth alive in the face of physical limits strikes me as preposterous and untenable." He remains perplexed by our collective blindness to a simple fact: It takes energy to obtain energy — the very commodity that is in short supply. He concludes in a matter-of-fact way: "Global transportation means pushing through air or water over vast distances that will not shrink. Cooking means heating meal-sized portions of food and water. (and so on). Can all of these things be done more efficiently? Absolutely. Can (these efficiency gains) go on forever to maintain growth? No." These three texts go together:
Galactic Scale Energy
Can Economic Growth Last?
What Does Sustainability Mean?

2. Ugo Bardi — Entropy, Peak Oil and Stoic Philosopy
"There are thermodynamic constraints to the system that we cannot dismiss — even though these limits may not appear in economics textbooks. The final result is collapse in one form or another. We cannot avoid it." Ugo Bardi, who teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence (and who alerted me to the Monti speech) is a stoic scientist: "What is collapse, after all? A collapse is just a period in which things are changing faster than usual". As perhaps only an Italian would do, he compares our civilisational plight to crashing a car into a wall: "maybe you can't avoid it, but if you wear seat belts and you have an airbag you'll be much better off. Even more important is to see the wall as soon as possible and start braking." Hmmm...
Peak Oil Thermodynamics and Stoic Philosophy
Peak Civilization: The Fall of the Roman Empire

3. Ivan Illich — Energy and Equity (1973)
"It has recently become fashionable to insist on an impending energy crisis". Energy & Equity was first published in Le Monde in early 1973. He continued: "This euphemistic term conceals a contradiction, and consecrates an illusion. It masks the contradiction implicit in the joint pursuit of equity and industrial growth. It safeguards the illusion that machine power can indefinitely take the place of man power". Yep, pretty much the whole story in a few lines.
Energy & Equity

4. John Michael — How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse 
Our economy is in danger of 'catabolic collapse' because it depends on perpetually growing through puts of energy and resources that are simply not going to be available. Greer lately writes as if this process is well under way. He describes a "growing sense of apprehension that it *can* go on — that the troubles currently pressing in on the industrial world could just keep on getting worse, day after day, year after year, for decades to come, following the same gradual curve that the industrial world followed in the days of its growth, but in reverse". Sounds about right. And so? (This will be the conclusion to my talk). 
A Theory of Catabolic Collapse

5. Jared Diamond — Collapse
"One reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the true energy costs of their society". We are not the first. Diamond focuses on Easter Island, where the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects. Do today's financial elites worry at night about about energy? If Mr. Monti is any guide then, no, they jolly well do not. 
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail orSucceed

6. David Mackay — Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air
This book is full of surprises, few of them pleasant. For example: turning off your phone charger for 24 hours saves as much energy as driving your car for...one second. MacKay was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Cambridge until, last year, he became Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change. The mind boggles at the thought of zero-attention-span pols being given this kind of reality-check: "How 'huge' are Britain's renewable resources, compared with its current (huge) energy consumption?" (not very much); How big do renewable energy facilities have to be, to make a significant contribution? (add one or two zeros to what's happening now): Which efficiency measures offer big savings and which offer only 5 or 10%? (bye bye to pretty much all the politicians' pet green projects). 
Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air

7. David Fleming — Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It 
Lean Logic does not sugar-coat the challenges we face: an economy that destroys the very foundations upon which it depends: climate weirdness, ecological systems under stress, shocks to community and culture. Neither does the book suggest that there are easy or even any solutions to these dilemmas. But a positive spirit infuses its 800 pages: "Large-scale problems do not require large-scale solutions; they require small-scale solutions within a large-scale framework." The book's greatest strength, for this mesmerized reader, is the lightness with which it draws on knowledge from earlier periods of history, and from other cultures. 
Lean Logic

8. Gail ’The Actuary’ Tverberg — Our Finite World 
Quite apart from the maths, or the thermodynamics, or the simple logic, "a lack of cash flow for investment in infrastructure will eventually bring the system down" says another dry doomer, Gail Tverberg, an actuary. She describes a political impossibility: “the need to make choices on which things we maintain, schools or roads or oil distribution pipelines or a smart electric grid or our housing stock". She sees no way that we can do them all. "Which roads do we turn from asphalt to gravel? Can we eliminate purchase of military jets? Do we stop building and upgrading schools and universities? Do we stop building new homes and office parks?"
Our Finite World

9. Charles Hall — Energy Return on Investment (EROI)
"Few issues are likely to be more important for the future of civilization". The issue? Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI). EROI represents a simple ratio, the amount of energy obtained from any energy-producing activity divided by the energy used to make that amount of energy available for productive activities. A related term, Net Energy, refers to the remainder from subtracting energy input from energy output. Total Net Energy represents “productive energy”, the energy available for all the economic, social, cultural and other activities of daily life. "The quality of fuels available is at least as important in our assessment as is the quantity" Hall explains: "many of the contemporary changes in our economy are related directly to changing EROI as our premium fuels are increasingly depleted". As the realities of EROI make themselves felt, Hall, a professor of Environmental & Forest Biology, concludes, "Americans will need to acknowledge the reality of biophysical constraints if they are to adapt to the coming energy crisis. Discretionary spending will be increasingly abandoned as humans attempt to meet their basic needs for food, shelter and clothing.
New Studies in EROI (Energy Return on Investment)"
See also: Hall, C.A.S.; Klitgaard; K. Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy. Springer: New York, NY, USA, 2011.

10. Phil Henshaw — System Energy Assessment (SEA)
Most economic sectors use at least five times more energy than is visible, let alone paid for. This is because the standard measures of business energy use, such as Life Cycle Analysis, do not count the energy needs of the distributed and sub-contracted operating services businesses employ. "That uncounted business energy demand is often 80% of the total, an amount of “dark energy” hidden from view". The energy cost to the economy for delivering business products — including energy — is five times more than what was thought when the energy demand is added in of the support services that technology requires to operate and deliver products. Thyese support services include the energy demands of employees, management, design, advertising, maintenance, Insurance, rent and taxes, etc, System Energy Assessment (SEA), measures the combined impacts of these material supply chains and service supply chains, to assess businesses as whole self-managing net-energy systems. 
System Energy Assessment (SEA), Defining a Standard Measure of EROI for Energy Businesses as Whole Systems

(The photograph at the top? I think of it as the kind of retirement home this optimistic doomer will end up in. It's a real apartment block, in downtown Sao Paulo, which terrifying-sounding gang members and their families have squatted).

Posted in: Social Good, Technology

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