Sunday, January 29, 2023

How the modern fantasy of an eternal civilization warps our view of technology

What historians call the Golden Age of Greece—which ran from about 500 to 300 BC—spawned the foundational Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle; mathematicians such as Euclid whose geometry is still taught in schools today; classical Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays are performed even now; an architecture so grand that it has been imitated in our own time, especially in government buildings; and the practice of democracy, a form of governance that would go into eclipse for over 2,000 years until the American and French revolutions.

What most people don't know is that the ancient Greeks who lived through that era did not think of themselves as being in a golden age. Instead, they thought of their society as a much degraded version of the heroic age that preceded it, an age described in such works as Homer's Illiad and Odyssey and Hesiod's Works and Days. How utterly difficult it is for most people living today to imagine a society whose members believed that the future would only bring further degradation and decline perhaps until civilization itself disappeared. History was to them cyclical with dark and golden ages—golden ages that start out with great vigor and hope and then grind down to dark eras that destroy the progress of the past.

Today, most modern people think of time as linear and history as merely a story of the gradual and now rapid rise of technological, social, political and cultural progress. Since time is linear, the trajectory is always forward and expected to be up. We humans will never again fall prey to the civilization-ending mistakes of the past. Our technology has no equal. Humans have decoupled from the limits nature previously imposed on them. They may even soon live and thrive on other planets. And, when limits or difficulties seem insurmountable, human ingenuity creates new technologies to overcome those perceived limits or difficulties.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, January 29.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

California shows why 'climate chaos' describes the climate problem better

"Global warming" morphed into "climate change" which now seems inadequate to describe the weather chaos we are experiencing on planet Earth.* The recent "atmospheric rivers" which have drenched California have been a catastrophe causing an estimated $1 billion in property damage and at least 17 deaths. As of this writing, overflowing river waters could cut the Monterey Peninsula off from the rest of the mainland.

The terrible rains that have hit California since December 26 have also been a bit of a blessing to the drought-ravaged state. Just as the storms began, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported that 28 percent of the state was considered to be in "extreme drought" and 45 percent was considered to be in "severe drought." But, even after an estimated 24.5 trillion gallons of water have dropped on California since December 26, 46 percent of California remains in "severe drought" and 49 percent is considered to be in "moderate drought."

So intense has been a drought which began in 2020, that the state is still not out of danger when it comes to water supplies. While California is prone to droughts, droughts are getting more severe and developing more quickly. This might be explained by something called the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship. For every degree Celsius of warming, there is 7 percent more moisture in the air. That is driving extreme downpours around the world as average temperatures have risen 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1880. But the flip side of this relationship is that warming temperatures and the greater capacity of the atmosphere to hold water can cause drying to occur more quickly.

California faces extreme rainfall and serious drought at the same time. That's chaos.

Sunday, January 08, 2023

The uncertain future of industrial process heat: A mirror for our energy challenges

Few of us think about heat as an essential ingredient in the products we use every day. And, yet industrial process heat constitutes two-thirds of all energy used by industry. It is used to melt and form metals, to make ceramics, to refine crude oil, to make industrial chemicals, to dry crops, to process food, to sterilize medical instruments, and to heat the facilities within which industries operate. Practically, everything we use on a regular basis has at some point required heat to process. And it turns out that the challenges society faces obtaining process heat mirror in many respects the energy challenges for society as a whole.

Without process heat, much of the world would grind to a halt. That's why the ready availability of fuel for creating that heat is so important. Currently, fossil fuels dominate as energy sources for process heat, chiefly natural gas and coal. There are two reasons to be concerned about their supply.

First, evolving regulations regarding fossil fuel emissions in order to address both pollution and climate change may make fossil fuels more expensive and difficult to use (for example, due to the need for advanced scrubbers and carbon capture). Second, the underground supplies of fossil fuels may not be as plentiful as the public has been led to believe. (Regarding oil and natural gas, see this piece. For coal, see this piece.)

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Can our current global system coexist with pandemics?

The first truly worldwide pandemic may have been the Russian flu which traveled from eastern Russia to the rest of the world in 1889 and 1890. (I'm certain someone will dispute this claim, but it won't affect my thesis.)

The death toll was estimated at around 360,000 which seems modest by our standards. The world population, however, was about 1.5 billion (circa 1900), so the presumed percentage of that population that died as a result of the Russian flu was about 0.02 percent. For comparison, the COVID-19 pandemic has so far killed 6.6 million people worldwide out of a population of approximately 8 billion. That's 0.08 percent of the population, and the COVID-19 pandemic is by no means over.

It's worth noting that some past pandemics have spanned decades (and even centuries if you count recurrences).