How Does the World Work?

  • See the About page for a description of the subjects of interest covered in this blog.

Series Indexes

Global Issues Blogroll

Blog powered by Typepad

Comment Policy

  • Comments
    Comments are open and welcome as long as they are not offensive or hateful. Also this site is commercial free so any comments that are offensive or promotional will be removed. Good questions are always welcome!

« What the president-elect SHOULD read | Main | What's the Plan then? »

November 11, 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Salient Green

I think there are an awful lot of people who can never work completely in reality.
I had the disturbing experience last weekend of having my intelligence insulted for nearly an hour by the father of my son's best friend.
Things he believed in included Creation, grass is better than forests for using CO2 which is not causing global warming anyway, on vehicle H2 generation, vast untapped quantities of abiotic oil in the Earth's crust and lastly, that "life goes on anyway, just look at Zimbabwe".
I was also sent, cruelly, to a site about a GHG which was "worse than all the others and hardly anyone has heard about it" called dihydrogen monoxide. Water.
I am still a little shaken by the experience, at the confronting reality that there is this level of delusion not uncommon in the community. Hearing about it was nothing compared to the real life encounter.
I also think that this type of person wil find another delusion to take the place of any shattered by reality.

George Mobus


It is sad isn't it. It is sad to realize our species isn't all it believes itself to be wrt: intelligence and capacity for understanding.

On reflection, of course, we realize that intelligence is normally distributed through the population and by definition half of the population is below the mean! Some, as your experience shows, are substantially below the mean.

But the really hard thing to contemplate is that high-level judgment - that comes from wisdom - is not even normally distributed. It is most likely skewed toward the low end (because it is newly emerged evolutionarily). Hence most people are really bad at it and resort (unconsciously) to emotionally-guided judgments. No rationality needed there. Ideologues and faith-based thinkers fall into this category.


Sukhbir  Dadwal

Dr Mobus,

You have pointed out many times in your posts that alternative forms of energy will not replace the levels of energy we currently get from fossil fuels.

I'm wondering are you talking about the amount of raw energy available in those fossil fuels, or the amount of energy we actually use to do useful work?

For example one 200lb person might drive a Honda Civic 20 miles to work. Another 200lb person might drive a Hummer H2 20 miles to work. The amount of useful work being done is the same but one person uses much more energy than the other.

The same could be applied to coal power. Lets say we are able to convert our entire grid to a smart grid which is much more efficient, then we are really needing less energy than the coal currently provides.

I realize that this does not take into account our current mindset of growth, but if we were to increase efficiencies in the areas where we use the most energy, perhaps the alternative forms will be enough. Maybe not enough to continue growing, but enough to sustain us while we lower population.


dihydrogen monoxide.

I just came across that joke recently. I guess it's been a favorite joke of the science geeks to pull on others for a while.

George Mobus


Absolutely correct. I would like to see a combination of reduction of non-useful work (the Hummer), efficiency (better insulation), and rapid deployment of 'smart' alternative sources appropriately scaled. Matching energy needs with energy availability should be possible over the next ten to twenty years. BUT it does mean that many people are going to have to give up a lot of what they now think is their entitlement (the Hummer drivers for example).

Nothing will work if we try to build out a supply system meant to match even today's demands. We will end up wasting our precious fossil fuels (needed to do the building/bootstrapping) building too much capacity and probably missing the mark anyway.

So we need to bring down our overall demand while ramping up the alternative supply systems and meet in the middle. Then as population declines over time we should be able to do two things: a) have more net energy per capita as seems appropriate to our children's moral sensibilities; and b) not replace energy supply capital that is no longer needed. At least in that kind of future, our descendants will have choices that don't necessitate destroying the Ecos!


danny bloom

Good post, Dr Mobus! BAU will prob prevail until the big climat tsunami hits in 400 years or so. You heard about the Maldives president's idea of moving his entire people to India or Thailand?

This story has received a huge push by the international media this week. CNN did a big story on it yesterday, with visuals, and Jon Henly the UK's Guardian has a story today, too. But the subhead to his story says it all: "The president of the Maldives wants to buy a new home for his people to save them from rising sea levels, but where on Earth could they go?"

These "climate refugees", yes, where will they go? Buy land in Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and start their lives all over again as shopkeepers and farmers? Or buy land in Sri Lanka or coastal India or Thailand? I don't think these other countries are going to want to take Maldivian climate refugees in? What about Israel or Jordan or Dubai or the USA, maybe Alaska?

In the end, I think this was a media-manufactured story, Andy, a press release manufactured story, a "weird news of the day" news brief that became a huge global headline. But there is really no story here. The people of the Maldives are not going to move to a new homeland. If the seas do rise and cover their islands, they will emigrate to other countries, but not en masse and the president will lose his job. He will not have a country to run anymore. This was a non-news story masquerading as Big News.

Then again, given the climate change crisis we are in, it's a good story to make people THINK about what the future might hold.

You asked "what kind of PLANS should countries be making now for future problems with global warming and rising sea levels?" Of course, the Homeland Security Agency should be planning and designing and siting future "climate retreats" in the Lower 48 and Alaska NOW, not to be used now, but to be used when the big "climate tsunami" hits, maybe in the 2400-2500 AD period or so. In fact, I have heard that the CIA and the Homeland Security already have convened meetings on such "climate retreats" ("polar cities" if located in Antartica and Barrow, Alaska), but have kept their meeting secret, TOP SECRET, for fear of unduly alarming Americans and Canadians. Unfortunately, most of these "climate retreats" will be used to house government workers and rich families, and the rest of the populace will be left to fend for itself, as in Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD. Unless people take action NOW to make sure this doesn't happen!

My class action lawsuit against world leaders on global warming is gaing steam now on PeakOik, Treehugger and Kunstlercast. Lots of opinions, pro and con, coming in.

See lawsuit here: (and I'm not kidding!)

The Maldives president gets a pass... because he IS thinking ahead.

Tim the Optimist

I disagree. You say renewable energy will not provide as much energy as we currently get from fossil fuels, I say it will, and that further, it will give us a great deal more energy than we currently use. In fact, renewable energy can provide more than enough to allow all people on earth to enjoy a quality of life equal to that of the most developed and energy rich people today - without burning fossil fuels.

The answer is geothermal energy. Or using the heat of the planet to boil water and make steam that can run electricity generating turbines. This technology exists today, and is being used today in pilot plants. In addition, the technology provides base power because it does not suffer the outages associated with other renewables, like wind or solar.

Currently, the entire human population uses approx 0.5 ZJ of energy per year. There is roughly 13,000 ZJ of heat energy available for extraction by geothermal methods. Of that, about 2,000 ZJ is accessible through known technologies. In other words, we have today the ability to gather 4,000 times as much energy as we currently use.

Given that this energy is constantly being replenished naturally via geological and radiological mechanisms occurring inside the planet, and given the sheer scale of the available energy, I can see no reason to be in any way concerned about a non-fossil fuel future.

The future is looking great, Tim.

Da Russophile

I very much agree with your views, that the world in the 21st century will involve transformational change - either towards sustainability or Olduvai.

However, I think the latter is unlikely, for the simple reason that according to the estimates I've read wind power has an EROIE of 10, and furthermore, it is expanding very rapidly now. Granted it's still at a low base (although significant in some countries, like Germany where it generates 5% of electricity) - but coal and uranium are projected not to peak until at least the 2040's or so, which should give us a big enough bridge to switch to wind and solar, which are as I understand it practically limitless and of a sufficiently high EROIE to sustain modern industrial civilization indefinitely.

The main danger is that a) estimates of the energy resources we do have right now are far lower than assumed even by most peakists like ourselves, and b) that resource shortages and the cessation of normal economic growth with lead to elite parasitism and Pyrrhic wars instead of a concerted move towards wind/solar.

So yes...the problem is, not a single "doomer" I've spoken to has yet countered my question of why civilization can't run on wind power, with some help from nuclear and solar. Sure there might be many more blackouts but it's sure better than lying at the bottom of Olduvai.

George Mobus


Stay optimistic. It beats being pessimistic. But the question is what is realistic.

The issue of whether alternative energy sources can replace fossil fuels, especially given our current growth-mode of economics isn't just my speculation. I take my lead from several energy experts who have made a deep study of these issues. I'd recommend you take a look at the works of Vlacav Smil, Bill McKibben, Charles Hall and similar others to get an understanding of the vast scale differences between the potentials for alternatives and what we are using globally today.

To an optimist a realist looks like a pessimist.


George Mobus


I think A civilization can work on alternative energy sources. Just not THIS civilization. We need a steady-state economy (ala Herman Daly and Robert Costanza) where the demand and supply are matched and all economic activity is balanced with the rest of the Ecos so that we retain ecological services and maintain a beautiful planet.

My whole point is that we cannot expect to save BAU in any way shape or form because it is the growth mentality and profligate expansion of the human economy that is destroying our world. Simply replacing one energy source for another and keeping the same philosophy of expansion will accomplish nothing even if it were possible (which as I've indicated to Tim above, I do not think it is).


Salient Green

While I believe in geothermal power and have shares in Geodynamics, the enormity of the effort required to replace our fossil fuel generation with it is daunting.

Each well takes around six months to drill down to around 5km deep, uses a few hundred tonnes of casing and a few more hundred tonnes of concrete.

Very high pressures are encountered and even higher to stimulate fractures. Initially, each well will have 4Mw capacity rising to 7Mw with scale.

Australia has 50Gw capacity and to replace even half with geothermal will require over 3500 wells to be drilled.

One other thing which hasn't been factored in is the extra requirements for electricity due to the impending conversion to electric transport.

Australia is only a little economy and so you can imagine the effort required for the world's larger economies and the hot rocks do not occur everywhere either.

Power requirements aside, I can't see how the ecosystem can continue to support 6 billion humans for very much longer. Major fisheries are collapsing and our food sources are becoming more polluted.

Tim the Optimist

I agree somewhat with Salient Green, in that I think shortages of water and food (and shelter) are much more likely to be the real problems in the future. This does not mean energy shortages are not going to need to be addresses too, it just means that water/food/shelter are literally essential to survival, whereas electrical power is not.

I think people will have to become more like vegetarians, not for any moral or values driven reason, but simply because we will run out of animals to eat. The planet's ecosystems are in a state of distress, and getting worse, and this is mostly due to human activity. Without drastic change, humans will cause catastrophic collapse of multiple vital ecosystems within one lifetime.

When ecosystems collapse, it is the big bulky, often predator, lifeforms at the top of the food chain that die off first. Guess what humans are? In order for our species to survive such a collapse, we will certainly need to change our food source, most likely to seaweed, grains and legumes as a staple source of protein.

In addition, the number of humans will be greatly reduced. The least unpleasant option is voluntary avoidance of reproduction, this is what happens naturally in other species when a food source becomes scarce, put simply, when animals dont feel good, they dont reproduce. We are animals too (yes I know sometimes we forget.) The unpleasant option is all the rest, as they all involve some form of violent suppression of reproduction, I hope it doesn't come to that.

The upside is that maybe after we get through this period in human history, we will have learnt to be a little more respectful of the rest of the life that also lives on this earth. And perhaps that will be a good thing overall.

Cheers, Tim.

dan bloom

a great discussion by skeptics/denialists is going on here. worth looking into. danny

via deSMOGBLOG commenter

"He would have to prove it
Submitted by JR Wakefield on Mon, 2008-11-24 06:59.
Great, let him take governments to court because that would force AGW warmists to prove their case. that is, they would have to PROVE AGW is actually happening and would have to PROVE that even if it is happening that it would be bad for humanity. And both those attempts will fail, and could quite likley put an end to AGW when it does fail."

The comments to this entry are closed.