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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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Thoughts on energy – crisis and survival

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coal-fired power plant, Germany

Recently I was talking to my language group about climate change, or global warming as I prefer to call it, and I uttered the deepity that heat equals energy, and I even wrote it up on the whiteboard as an ‘equation’ of sorts.

I was making the simple but important point that stuff in the environment, particularly air and water, moves around faster when heated up, just as it slows down when cooled, or frozen, the reason why freezers and fridges are so useful. So from an environmental perspective, heat means more volatility, more movement, more action, like a pot of water on the stove, which can be pretty disastrous for the biosphere.

Useful enough as far as it goes, but of course there’s much more to energy than this. I’m reading, inter alia, How the world really works, by Vaclav Smil, the first chapter of which is titled ‘Understanding energy’. He quotes Richard Feynman:

It is important to understand that in physics today we have no knowledge of what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way. However, there are formulas for calculating some numerical quantity, and when we add it all together it gives… always the same number. It is an abstract thing in that it doesn’t tell us the mechanism or the reasons for the various formulas.

V Smil, How the world really works, p23

Energy is something we get from something, something that is energetic, like our sun. Water falling down a waterfall has kinetic energy, or gravitational energy. Plants absorb energy from the sun to fuel a super-complex process called photosynthesis, described in detail in Oliver Morton’s Eating the sun, one of the most intellectually demanding books I’ve ever read. We’ve discovered, over the past few centuries, that fossilised plant material, starting with coal, is a rich source of energy, much richer than wooden logs set alight. 

We started to get a ‘modern’ sense of energy through the development of physical laws. Newton’s second law of motion is key here. It basically states that the acceleration of an object (a state of disequilibrium) is due to an unbalanced force, and this acceleration is dependent upon the object’s mass and the force acting upon it. This three-way relationship is usually presented as F = m.a, or a = F/m. Or, as Smil puts it:

Using modern scientific units, 1 joule is the force of 1 newton – that is, the mass of 1 kilogram accelerated by 1 m/s² acting over a distance of I metre. 

Needless to say, this isn’t how people without training in physics think of energy. The ‘capacity for doing work’ is one way of putting it – and J C Maxwell tried a physical definition of work as ‘[an] act of producing a change of configuration in a system in opposition to a force which resists that change’. 

Whether or not it can be described as work, energy surely changes stuff. The energy of the sun not only changes plants (photosynthesis) but also our oceans and lakes (evaporation), and the make-up of the sun itself (nuclear fusion). 

And living things expend energy in doing work – to obtain and consume food (other living things) to provide energy to go on living and working. And over time we humans have evolved to look for and find ways to obtain more energy via less work. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say we’ve evolved ways of doing this, as a collective species, more effectively and successfully than any other living thing, and at the expense of many other living things.   

This is a bit of a problem for us. Unlike other living things, we know that we’re totally reliant on the biosphere that we dominate. That our survival and thriving depends upon the living stuff that we kill. And much of that stuff – grains, legumes, fungi, root vegetables, as well as poultry, fish, lambs and cattle – we bring to life for the sole purpose of killing them, in multi-billion dollar industries. And yet we must eat, and we really enjoy doing so, or are habituated, in an affluent society, to mix with others in interactions associated with food. We’ve certainly gone beyond thoughts, in the WEIRD world, that we must eat to stave off starvation, or to top up our energy.  

We require energy for other things. Travel, thought, conversation, exploration, domination. And this has required more ‘efficient’ forms of energy. More output for less input (at least from we humans). Outsourcing work to machines, fuelled by non-human sources of energy.

How we came to understand that fossil deposits – first coal, then crude oil, then methane or ‘natural gas’ – could be exploited as seemingly limitless energy sources requires a separate blog post, and involves many individual contributors, both theoretical and practical. And in exploiting that energy we didn’t realise, or much care, that it might come at a cost. We rode that energy bonanza, and the human population rose from one billion, ‘achieved’ in the middle of the 19th century, to 8 billion today, and counting, with a billion added every 13 years at current rates. 

This has been very successful, in the short term. I used to think about this with the analogy of bacteria in a Petri dish, multiplying exponentially, then collapsing spectacularly when all the nutrients are consumed. But we’re not bacteria, and the nutrient situation in a Petri dish bears little comparison to that of our evolving, dynamic biosphere. We, as a species, have evolved the capability of adapting to transformations to our environment, of our own making, in order to survive those transformations – by transforming those transformations. That’s what we do. Indeed that’s what we must do, to survive, and thrive.

I’m not extolling our virtues here. My view re humanity, FWIW, lies somewhere between the ‘beginning of infinity’ all-conquering optimism of David Deutsch and the eternal-present ‘seeing’ of John Gray (Straw Dogs). We plan for our future because we want to endure, and unlike other species, we know that there is a future, a human future, beyond our individual selves. And we want that future to be successful, whatever that means. 

So, returning to energy – can we find ways to transform our energy supply so that we can sustain ourselves while minimising the damage to the web of other life? At present, we’re having no problems multiplying our own species, but other species, apart from those we’ve learned to exploit for food, are diminishing and disappearing. And yet, there’s much talk of the value of human diversity. 

I’ve written about energy futures elsewhere. The continuing exploration and development of nuclear fusion, improvements in fission technology, improving the energy efficiency and versatility of solar panels and surfaces, developments in materials science, recycling technologies and so on. All of this is important, and often exciting. We also have to refocus our energy sources to be less exploitative of other species – less reproduction for slaughter, which is not only unnecessarily cruel but also wasteful of land and other resources, especially for large grazing and consuming species. Gaia Vince reports on the ‘fake meat’ business that I’ve written about in the past:

Producers are using biotechnology to create fake meats that bleed like beef – the Impossible Burger is made from a soy protein with a yeast that has been genetically modified to produce leghaemoglobin, an iron-carrying molecule like haemoglobin that gives the burger its meaty bloodiness. However most of what we enjoy about meat is the taste and aroma of the Maillard chemical reaction: this is the fusion of sugars and amino acids that occurs when the food browns during cooking. This can now be convincingly replicated with plant-based molecules.

G Vince, Nomad century, p161

According to a report cited by Vince, ‘within 15 years the rise of cell-based meat will bankrupt the US’s beef industry, at the same time removing the need to grow soya and maize for feed’. Sounds a bit optimistic, but watch this space. 

Clearly the future for us, and for a healthy, diverse biosphere, depends on a transformation of our energy production and use. And to be fair to our collective selves we need to help and protect those who are suffering most from our impact on the biosphere, a suffering disproportionately felt by those who’ve had the least impact. My guess is that the transformation will come, but too late for too many. We’re great survivors, but terribly selfish. 


Vaclav Smil, How the world really works, 2022


Gaia Vince, Nomad century, 2022

Written by stewart henderson

August 28, 2023 at 9:13 am

on dinosaurs and the Cretaceous climate

with 2 comments

sauropods of the Jurassic and Cretaceous – they munched on superfoods, apparently


I’ve been reading this entertaining book on dinosaurs by the curmudgeonly controversialist Brian Ford, who insists that dinosaurs were largely aquatic. I know about as much about dinosaurs as Trump knows about government, so I’m not going to wade into the central debate, if there is one (most palaeontologists dismiss Ford’s claim out of hand), but there’s so many items and assertions here worthy of further investigation that I’m bewildered by choice. So I’ve decided that, since there’s so much interest in current climate change and what it might mean for the future of various biosphere life-forms including ourselves, I’ll spend a bit of time researching what’s known about the climate, and the atmosphere, during the Cretaceous period – a very long time-span indeed from a human perspective, stretching from around 145 million years ago to 66 million years ago. It seems to have have been very different then (assuming that 80 million years of weather can be encapsulated in one description) from what it is now, and yet life was thriving – so why worry?

Well, life then was life as we don’t know it now – though, interestingly, many plants of the period still exist today, including plants from even earlier, such as gingkos and horsetails. In fact, the Cretaceous saw the emergence of flowering plants (angiosperms) in great numbers, and this favoured a rise in dinosaur numbers and types. The climate generally was warm, wet and tropical, and according to NASA climate scientists, carbon dioxide levels were at 1000 ppm (in the middle Cretaceous, around 110 mya), compared to around 410 ppm today. Sea levels were around 300 feet higher than today, and surface temperatures averaged 27 degrees celsius compared to about 15 at present. It’s likely that no ice existed anywhere on the planet.

So why so much CO2, and how did it come to drop? To take the second question first, at this time, the continents weren’t where they are today. Some 90 mya India began a rapid movement away from Madagascar towards Asia at a rate of 15-20 cms per year. It collided with the Asian plate some 55-50 mya, creating the Himalayas, and silicate weathering began, resulting in the incorporation of CO2 into carbonate, which washed into the ocean and was buried. The surface temperature started to drop with CO2 levels, which came down to an inter-glacial atmospheric concentration of about 280 ppm in CO2. Once that concentration got down to 450 ppm the Antarctic ice sheet began to form, and the Greenland ice sheet started at around 400pm, all of which is highly relevant to today’s climate situation with its rise in CO2 levels.

As to the first question, plate tectonics and related volcanic emissions appears to provide most of the answers. It’s believed, in fact, that CO2 levels were as high as 4000 ppm during the Cambrian period, over 500 mya (and at their lowest at 180 ppm during the Pleistocene glaciation a little over 2 mya).

None of this, of course, comes close to answering questions about dinosaur lifestyle, but I do note that Brian Ford is an outlier not only for his aquatic dinosaur hypothesis. He also questions, indeed trashes, the dinosaur extinction-by-meteor story, and argues that the sky was probably orange-yellow, to our perception, at the time of the dinosaurs. All of this is contrary to generally accepted science, so he’s rather unlikely to be correct. Having said that, questions about how some of these incredibly massive sauropod beasties managed to get around and consume enough food to maintain themselves – these still appear to be unanswered to a large degree. Hopefully somebody will build a time machine soon.


Too big to walk, by Brian Ford, 2018


PSW 2404 Satellites, Dinosaurs, Milankovitch Cycles, and Cretaceous Earth | Compton Tucker (video)

What was the climate like during the age of Dinosaurs? / Benjamin Burger (video)



Written by stewart henderson

December 11, 2019 at 12:53 pm