Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How crazy can it get?

This is the first of the "Mad World" entries. The idea behind these types of posts is to discuss and analyze how the increased "flow-through" of energy, from ordered and usable to chaotic and polluting, in our current industrialized, global system may tend to create insane, obscene, destructive observable phenomena in the natural world and human behavior.

The essay below, quoted in its entirety form The New York Times Book Review, depicts a vision of a not-too-distant America. The author projects the end game for some of our current hyper-productive behaviors, such as women holding off on pregnancy until their sixties, and an chemically-induced end to sleep so we can work more. The essay is purely speculative, similar to the trend in sci-fi. But I can't help sense some bitterness in the author's tone, almost like he is scolding us to be careful what we wish for--also similar to that current sci-fi trend.

For myself, I can't get too worked up because I think entropy law prohibits our current path of development from getting too much crazier that it already is. A planet or society--like a body--simply cannot be kept alive on pills alone.

Here is William Saletan's "You:the Updated Owner's Manual"


The Eight Precepts

P1: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed (otherwise know as the 1st law of thermodynamics).

The key verb for our purposes is "created". Lots of budget problems--family, governmental--become greatly simplified if we factor in plans for some management tool or technology to produce energy from thin air. It is not to be. All usable energy must come from a physical source, to be borrowed, bought, cajoled, siphoned, stolen, bartered or begged into service of work.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

P2: Fresh, unused energy is concentrated, potent, powerful, primed and ready to perform work. The process of work does not destroy energy, but transforms it into energy that is dispersed, weak and much less work-capable (otherwise known as the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

Think of water moving down hill. At the top of the hill, it holds the potential to produce a lot of wattage on its way down. But once it hits bottom, wattage must be applied to get it to work again.

“It takes energy to make energy.”

P3: Usable energy is finite. All systems will eventually break down according to three scenarios:

* System will run out of usable energy

* System will loose the ability to process outside energy

* Outside energy will become depleted

Using our hydroelectric example from P2:

* Stored energy in the feeder lake will run out if the lake empties

* Turbine system will break down, or the system responsible for diverting new sources of water to the dam will bread down

* Snowmelt that feeds into the lake will not build up adequate amounts in the winter.

“Things fall apart.”

P4: Efficiencies that allow the system to perform more work at greater speeds, will necessarily quicken the transfer of energy to a unusable state in that system

Say the town underneath our hydroelectric dam builds a golf course. They need more power from the turbines and more water from the lake, so they open the spigot wider. When the lake level drops, they cut a water channel in the mountain that directly drains the snowmelt, causing the snowmelt to drain much faster over the course of the summer. The turbines are worked harder and require more maintenance.

“The superhighway to hell is paved with good intentions.”

P5: Efficient energy-channeling systems can only conceal, postpone or redistribute the consequences of speeding up the energy transfer. These are simple-interface systems for the individual or group, but require complex management systems that have a complexity that is inversely proportional to the appearance of simplicity.

These systems feed off of their own energy in a less sustainable way.

“There is not such thing as a free lunch, even if the costs are hidden from you.”

P7: Systems that do not force energy to do more work at faster rates necessarily slow the transfer of energy to work-incapable states.

A farm that limits its output to what can be produced using solar and animal energy does not create very much unavailable energy.

“Photosynthesis is as close to a free lunch as we are going to get.”

P8: These are complex-interface systems for the individual or group because they require dealing with all energy costs and byproducts upfront in the local environment. However, management requirements in these systems range from simple to unnecessary because the system is run according to the limitations of entropy.

These systems feed off of their own energy at a slower, more sustainable rate.

The solar farm is a complex poly-culture of grass, forest, water, many different crops and animals, but the farmer does not have to worry about the disorder wrought by entropic pollutants like manure lagoons, e. coli and Monsanto.

“Slow and steady wins the race—for now.”