Energy and Civilization: A History

Notes from Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil:

* From a fundamental biophysical perspective, both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them, in more affordable ways at lower costs and with higher efficiencies, into heat, light, and motion.

* Every form of energy can be turned into heat, or thermal energy. No energy is ever lost in any of these conversions. Conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics, is one of the most fundamental universal realities. But as we move along conversion chains, the potential for useful work steadily diminishes. This inexorable reality defines the second law of thermodynamics, and entropy is the measure associated with this loss of useful energy. While the energy content of the universe is constant, conversions of energies increase its entropy (decrease its utility).

* A great deal of traditional farming required heavy work, but such spells were often followed by extended periods of less demanding activities or seasonal rest, an existential pattern quite different from the nearly constant high mobility of foraging. The shift from foraging to farming left a clear physical record in our bones. Examination of skeletal remains from nearly 2,000 individuals in Europe whose lives spanned 33,000 years, from the Upper Paleolithic to the twentieth century, revealed a decrease in the bending strength of leg bones as the population shifted to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. This process was complete by about two millennia ago, and there has been no further decline in leg bone strength since then, even as food production has become more mechanized, an observation confirming that the shift from foraging to farming, from mobility to sedentism, was a truly epochal divide in human evolution.

* The organic fertilizer with the highest nitrogen content (around 15% for the best deposits) is guano, droppings of seabirds preserved in the dry climate of islands along the Peruvian coast.

* Until the early 1980s there were no private cars in China, and until the late 1990s most commuters rode bicycles even in the country’s large cities.

* Electricity is the most convenient, most versatile, and, at the point of its use, the cleanest form of modern energy.

* Infant mortality is an excellent proxy for conditions ranging from disposable income and quality of housing to the adequacy of nutrition, level of education, and a state’s investment in health care: very few babies die in countries where families live in good housing and where well-educated parents (themselves well nourished) feed them properly and have access to medical care. And, naturally, life expectancy quantifies the long-term effects of these critical factors.

* That fossil fuel resources are finite does not imply any fixed dates for the physical exhaustion of coals or hydrocarbons, nor does it mean the early onset of unbearably rising real costs of recovering these resources and hence the necessity of a rapid transition to a post-fossil fuel era. […] Consequently, it is not worries about an early exhaustion of fossil fuels – most prominently expressed by the advocates of imminent peak oil – but rather the impact on the habitability of the biosphere (above all through global climate change) that is the most important near-and long-term concern resulting from the world’s dependence on coals and hydrocarbons.


January 10, 2020
Tags: ,


Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Notes from Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow:

* “It is very important to remember what other people tell you, not so much what you yourself already know.”

* “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.”

* Rockefeller equated silence with strength: Weak men had loose tongues and blabbed to reporters, while prudent businessmen kept their own counsel. Two of his most cherished maxims were “Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed” and “A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.”

* Taking for granted the growth of his empire, he hired talented people as found, not as needed.

* Far more than a technocrat, Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who exerted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills. “The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee,” he once said, “and I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.” Employees were invited to send complaints or suggestions directly to him, and he always took an interest in their affairs.

* At meetings, Rockefeller had a negative capability: The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed, and he played on his mystique as the resident genius immune to petty concerns. As one director recalled, “I have seen board meetings, when excited men shouted profanity and made menacing gestures, but Mr. Rockefeller, maintaining the utmost courtesy, continued to dominate the room.”

* Rockefeller prevailed at Standard Oil because he had mastered a method for solving problems that carried him far beyond his native endowment. He believed there was a time to think and then a time to act. He brooded over problems and quietly matured plans over extended periods. Once he had made up his mind, however, he was no longer troubled by doubts and pursued his vision with undeviating faith. Unfortunately, once in that state of mind, he was all but deaf to criticism. He was like a projectile that, once launched, could never be stopped, never recalled, never diverted.

* Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law. Unfettered markets tended frequently toward monopoly or, at least, toward unhealthy levels of concentration, and government sometimes needed to intervene to ensure the full benefits of competition.

* “Great wealth is a great burden, a great responsibility. It invariably proves to be one of two things—either a great blessing or a great curse.”

* To Rockefeller, the least imaginative use of money was to give it to people outright instead of delving into the causes of human misery. “That has been our guiding principle, to benefit as many people as possible,” he affirmed. “Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished.”

* Rockefeller reviewed every bill that arrived at home and often patrolled the hallways, turning off gaslights. Such habits were not simply reflexive stinginess but were rooted in bedrock beliefs about the value of money.

* “A man’s wealth must be determined by the relation of his desires and expenditures to his income. If he feels rich on ten dollars, and has everything else he desires, he really is rich.”


January 5, 2020
Tags: , ,


Oil: A Beginner’s Guide

Notes from Oil: A Beginner’s Guide by Vaclav Smil:

* In 2016 motor and aviation gasoline accounted for a third of global refinery throughput. The US share of global gasoline consumption was about 41% of the total, or more than 1,200kg/capita: the country now consumes more gasoline than the combined total for the EU, Japan, China and India.

* Nearly two-thirds of the world’s refined products are now used in transportation (roughly 2.5Gt in 2005) and in the US that share is now more than 75%. Transportation’s dependence on liquid fuels is even higher: in 2015 about 93% of all energy used by road vehicles, trains, ships and planes came from crude oil.

* In 1900 American farmers needed an average of about three minutes’ labor to produce 1kg of wheat, but by the year 2000 the time was down to just two seconds and the best producers now do it in one second.

* The second most voluminous non-fuel use of a refined petroleum product is asphalt.

* Only about 20% of diamonds are sold to the jewellery trade; most of the rest go into drilling for hydrocarbons and metallic ores.

* Record US well depths reached with rotary rigs increased from 300m in 1895 to more than 1.5km by 1916; the 3km mark was reached in 1930, the deepest pre-WWII well was 4.5km (in 1938) and the 6km mark was surpassed in 1950.

* The average depth of new US exploratory oil wells increased from about 1,460m during the 1950s to nearly 2,300m during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

* Fracking fluid is about 90% water. Most of the rest is sand, and additives (hundreds of substances have been tried) usually make up less than 0.5% of the volume but they contain a mix of chemicals (acids, corrosion inhibitors, gelling agents, surfactants, biocides) that should never be allowed to contaminate drinking water. Usually this is not a problem as fracking takes place far below the aquifers, and steel and cement in properly finished wells should prevent any contamination closer to the surface.

* Moving Alaskan oil 3,800km by tanker from Valdez to Long Beach in California requires energy equivalent to only about 0.5% of the transported fuel. And a 300,000dwt supertanker needs an equivalent of only about 1% of the fuel it carries in order to travel more than 15,000km from Ra’s Tanūra, the world’s largest loading oil terminal on the Saudi coast of the Persian Gulf, to the US East Coast.

* By far the largest oil storage is the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve that began to fill in 1977 with imported Saudi oil. Crude oil is stored deep underground in four massive salt caverns along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast. The maximum capacity is 713.5Mb and the reserves stood at 685Mb in June 2017, representing about 10% of US annual oil consumption.

* The chances of ending the fossil fuel era in a matter of two or three decades appear quite unrealistic: in 2017 the world derived about 85% of its primary commercial energy from the combustion of fossil carbon.


December 30, 2019
Tags: ,


The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War

Notes from The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon:

* Advertising developed in part as a result of mass production; likewise, it was said that advertising made mass production possible. Firms decided that there was a limit to attracting customers through lower prices, and they tried the alternative strategy of increasing volume by brand-centric advertising. Although advertising began in the late nineteenth century with the development of the first branded products, its true explosion came in the 1920s, when it became increasingly tied to the newly invented radio.

* The 1902 Sears catalog contained 1,162 pages. The explosive growth of circulation of the Sears catalog attests to its growing influence—catalogs went to 3.6 percent of American households in 1902, 15.2 percent in 1908, and 25.7 in 1928.

* Electric lights are an example of a technology that had a great burst of innovation early, in this case 1880–1920, and then stood still afterwards. Although the fluorescent bulb had come to dominate lighting in commercial and industrial settings by 1950, virtually nothing changed in home illumination from 1920 until the development of the compact fluorescent bulb after 1990.

* The current system of airport security all over the world represents an overreaction to the September 11, 2001, hijackings. There was only one weakness in the U.S. airline security system on September 11, and this was that the cockpit doors were flimsy. Within days, they were replaced by completely secure doors that nobody could break through. Although the security issue was completely solved within a week, fourteen years later billions of dollars per year of passenger time continues to be wasted in unnecessary additional security precautions. The pre-2001 security system, based on a quick walk through an X-ray machine to check for guns and metal weapons, would be enough.

* The unrivaled autonomy of the medical profession began to erode after the 1950s. As hospitals became larger and more complex, administrative control fell increasingly into the hands of professional administrators. Patients also began to challenge the authority of the medical profession. While “for the most part, the authority of the doctor was unquestioned” in 1960, with the surgical profession even earning such high praise as being called a “religion of competence,” by the early 1970s patients were demanding greater say in how they were treated. What had always been a tradition of “doctors know best” changed in 1972 when a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., for the first time established a legal requirement for informed consent. “According to the new standard, the physician had to tell the patient whatever ‘a reasonable person’ would want to know in order to decide whether to accept the treatment.” In 1973, responding to increasing pressure from healthcare consumers, the American Hospital Association came out with a Patients’ Bill of Rights.

* One of the most important improvements in American industrial efficiency was the establishment by Herbert Hoover of the National Bureau of Standards. Its aim was to create a system of uniformly sized parts, down to screws and bolts, aimed at “simplification of practice, elimination of waste, conservation of materials, minimum training of workers, reduction and savings in supply purchasing and unwieldy inventories, defeat of confusion, and speed in production.”

* Social Security has been central to the reduction of the poverty rate among the elderly, from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent by 2003.

* The ratio of annual immigration to the U.S. population dropped from an average 1.0 percent per year during 1909–13 to 0.25 percent per year during 1925–29, and the growth rate of the population fell from 2.1 percent during 1870–1913 to 0.9 percent between 1926 and 1945.34 The anti-immigration legislation has long been cited as a cause of the Great Depression, in the sense that the overbuilding of residential and nonresidential structures in the 1920s was based on an expectation of continued rapid population growth that did not occur.


June 16, 2016
Tags: ,


Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens

Notes from Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens by Nicholas Shaxson:

* Over half of world trade passes, at least on paper, through tax havens. Over half of all bank assets, and a third of foreign direct investment by multinational corporations, are routed offshore.

* The offshore world is not a bunch of independent states exercising their sovereign rights to set their laws and tax systems as they see fit. It is a set of networks of influence controlled by the world’s major powers, notably Britain, the United States, and some jurisdictions in Europe. Each network is deeply interconnected with, and warmly welcomes offshore business from, the others. Wealthy U.S. individuals and corporations use the British spiderweb extensively: Enron, for example, had 881 offshore subsidiaries before it went bust, of which 692 were in the Cayman Islands, 119 in the Turks and Caicos, 43 in Mauritius, and 8 in Bermuda, all in the British spiderweb. The United States returns the favor to wealthy British interests investing tax-free, in secrecy, via Wall Street. Not only that, but the world’s most important tax havens in their own right are not exotic palm-fringed islands but some of the world’s most powerful countries themselves.

* The story about the origins of Swiss bank secrecy is no more than an appealing fiction. The argument about it being set up to protect Jewish money first appeared in the November 1966 Bulletin of today’s Credit Suisse. It wasn’t true. The reason bank secrecy was strengthened in 1934 was a scandal two years earlier when the Basler Handelsbank was caught in flagrante facilitating tax evasion by members of French high society, among them two bishops, several generals, and the owners of Le Figaro and Le Matin newspapers. Before that, there was professional secrecy (such as exists between doctors and their patients), and violation of this secrecy was a civil offense, not a criminal one as it is today. The law had nothing to do with protecting Jewish secrets.


April 6, 2016
Tags: , , ,


The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Notes from The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman:

* One of every six gallons of water pumped into water mains by U.S. utilities simply leaks away, back into the ground. Sixteen percent of the water disappears from the pipes before it makes it to a home or business or factory. Every six days, U.S. water utilities lose an entire day’s water.

* Ten gallons of tap water, at home, costs on average 3 pennies. That’s the equivalent of getting seventy-four of those $1.29 half-liter bottles of water we love so much for less than a nickel. We happily pay three thousand times that price at the convenience store—one bottle for $1.29. But when the water bill goes from $30 to $34 a month, customers react as if they’ll have to choose between their prescription drugs and their water service.

* We only have that one allotment of water—it was delivered here 4.4 billion years ago. No water is being created or destroyed on Earth. So every drop of water that’s here has seen the inside of a cloud, and the inside of a volcano, the inside of a maple leaf, and the inside of a dinosaur kidney, probably many times.

* Water itself isn’t becoming more scarce, it’s simply disappearing from places where people have become accustomed to finding it—where they have built communities assuming a certain availability of water—and reappearing somewhere else.

* The total water on the surface of Earth (the oceans, the ice caps, the atmospheric water) makes up 0.025 percent of the mass of the planet—25/100,000ths of the stuff of Earth. If Earth were the size of a Honda Odyssey minivan, the amount of water on the planet would be in a single, half-liter bottle of Poland Spring in one of the van’s thirteen cup holders.

* A molecule of water that evaporates into the air—from a fountain, from a puddle, from your skin—spends about nine days floating in the sky before returning to Earth as rain or snow.

* Americans spent $21 billion on bottled water in 2009. It doesn’t seem like an astonishing sum of money – about $65 per person, $1.25 a week. But in the context of water, $21 billion is huge. Consider, for instance, what Americans spend for all the water delivered to their homes – 350 gallons per family per day, 365 days a year. The water bill comes to about $412 a year. Which means we spend $46 billion a year on all the household water we use all year long — to run the morning shower, to boil the pasta, to water the lawn. As a nation, we spend $46 billion for a year’s water, always on, whenever we need it. And we spend another $21 billion – almost half as much – for bottled water, for an amount of water that wouldn’t get us through eight hours of water use at home on any given day.

* We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 8.33 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water—you have to leave empty space.)

* Water utilities use 3 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, equal to the output of 162 power plants, making water utilities the largest single industrial users of electricity in the country. In California, 20 percent of the electricity in the state is used to move or treat water.

* There is no global water crisis, because all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional. There is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct.


March 23, 2016
Tags: ,


The Case for Mars

Notes from The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin:

* Where there is no vision, the people perish. The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. But no goal can be sustained unless it can be backed up, and not by “rationales,” but by reasons. There are real and vital reasons why we should venture to Mars. It is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering, and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world, a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity’s career as a spacefaring species with no limits to its resources or aspirations as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond. For the science, for the challenge, for the future; that’s why we should go to Mars. The only meaningful counterargument against launching a humans to Mars initiative is the assertion that we cannot do it. This claim, however, is completely false.

* Unique among the extraterrestrial bodies of our solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the actual development of a technological civilization.

* With its twenty-four-hour day-night cycle and an atmosphere thick enough to shield its surface against solar flares, Mars is the only extraterrestrial planet that will accommodate large-scale greenhouses lit by natural sunlight.

* If the human mind can understand the universe, it means that the human mind is fundamentally of the same order as the divine mind. If the human mind is of the same order as the divine mind, then everything that appeared rational to God as he constructed the universe, its “geometry,” can also be made to appear rational to the human understanding, and so if we search and think hard enough, we can find a rational explanation and underpinning for everything. This is the fundamental proposition of science.

* The ability to manufacture metals is fundamental to any technological civilization. Mars provides abundant resources to support their production. In fact, in this respect, Mars is considerably richer than the Earth.

* Whether it’s the United States, NATO, the United Nations, or the Martian Republic, some government’s agreement is needed to give worthless terrain real estate property value. Once that is in place, however, even the undeveloped open real estate on Mars represents a tremendous source of capital to finance the initial development of Martian settlements. Sold at an average value of $20 per acre, Mars could be worth $700 billion. Should Mars be terraformed, these open land prices could be expected to grow a hundredfold, with a rough planetary land value of $70 trillion implied.


November 18, 2015
Tags: , , , ,