Sunday, November 26, 2023

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a holiday break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, December 3.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Self-extinction: Male fertility, pesticides and the end of the human project

It is a common meme these days that humans are busy bringing about their own extinction. This is usually imagined to take the form of mass death resulting from the effects of climate change including food shortages, and/or from the rapid decline in the availability of fossil fuels, and/or from a worldwide pandemic caused by a microbe as lethal as the Ebola virus.

But what if our path to extinction is really taking the form of damage to human fertility of the type described by a new report that links the dramatic decline in male sperm count directly to pesticides? What if human society collapses for lack of new humans? The plants and animals might rejoice if they can do such a thing. But the human project would come to an end.

And that speaks to the central issue for humankind. Is the human project worth saving? And, if it is, are we as a global society willing to do what it takes to save it? On current form one would expect that the answer is no. But in order to change the answer to yes, the "yes" forces would have to proffer some very compelling arguments to get the world's chemical companies to give up on synthetic pesticides. I can imagine arguments that include reference to the literary, musical, architectural, artistic, philosophical and scientific achievements of humans. But these would likely fall on deaf ears unless the scientific achievements are allowed to include the continued dispersal of pesticides into the air, water and soil across the globe.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

We'll never run out of sand, right?

The single most abundant element in the Earth's crust is oxygen making up 46.6 percent of the mass. The second most abundant element is silicon making up 27.7 percent, mostly in the form of various molecules combining silicon and oxygen. Silicon dioxide is the kind people are familiar with and it is found on most, but not all beaches of the world.

It just doesn't seem reasonable to be concerned that we will somehow run out of sand. After all, the estimated weight of the Earth is 1.3 X 1025 pounds (13 followed by 24 zeros) or 6.5 X 1021 tons. The crust makes up 1 percent of that total weight, so the crust weighs 6.5 X 1019 tons. Of that, 27.7 percent is silicon or 1.8 X 1019 tons. The world consumes about 50 billion tons a year. For comparison's sake, that's 5 X 1010 tons annually—which if you do the math means we will run out of sand from the Earth's crust in 360 million years at current rates of consumption.

But, of course, not all sand is created equal. Much of it is unsuitable for industrial purposes such as making concrete or proppants in hydraulically fractured oil and gas deposits (fracking). The shape and uniformity of sand grains are crucial in certain uses such as proppants (which keep fractures open once they've been made). Sand casting (used to make metal objects) requires a mixture of three different kinds of sand, each with a different chemical formula. Sand of particularly high purity is required for glass-making and for solar panels and computer chips.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

AI: The information economy becomes ever more energy and resource intensive

Back in 2009 I wrote a piece entitled "The unbearable lightness of information." Since then the information economy has become ever more resource intensive. Examples include Bitcoin, the widely recognized digital-only currency, which, as it turns out, consumes about as much electricity as the nation of Norway each year. (Why a currency with no physical bills should weigh so heavily on the energy system is explained in the same linked piece.)

Data centers and data transmission networks account for between 2 and 3 percent of global electricity consumption. Think of all the things in the world which use electricity, and you'll see why this share for this one facet of society is such a large chunk.

While the telecommunications industry is becoming more efficient in its energy use, total energy use continues to expand. The emerging 5G system uses three times more energy than 4G. Between 2020 and 2026 network energy needs are expected to increase 150 to 170 percent. So much for the information economy being light on resources!