Looking down the barrel — the Tooth Fairy & the Dragon-King
Part 1 — Loss of access
This is our third GB post. In our previous post we cast light on a number of “elephants in the cryptocurrency room”. This enabled us to profile a global demand for “something else”; something that cryptocurrency technology, as demonstrated by recent developments, can at least in part address but does not, not yet. We provisionally defined this demand as means to do:
* Transactions between anything/anyone and anything/anyone else in secure, safe and resilient ways, that involves the key features of currencies as units of account, exchange, and storage of value;
* That would be interoperable between anything and anything else, in real time, with very low latency;
* That could scale globally to many billion nodes levels and able to go well over 70G nodes beyond the 2030 time horizon; and
* That would be anchored in, and backed with, sustainable installed power and related energy flows, specifically at the very points where energy is accessed and used, where people live and work and wherever they happen to go; and
* Be overlaid onto an Internet that would also be thermodynamically viable;
* In such a way as to be immune to the vagaries of the global financial system;
* Not just in the short-term but also in the longer-run, well beyond the 2030 time horizon.
GB acknowledged that this might seem a most intractable challenge. However we stressed that we are more than confident that it can be dealt with swiftly, and highly profitably, albeit, in our view, not along the routes presently followed.
In the above specifications, access to sustainable energy and thermodynamic viability play the key roles. This is why GB is now turning to the next herd of elephants — the energy ones. This time the room is the whole of the globalised industrial world (the GIW, in this and subsequent posts). In this and the next few posts we are going to look down the barrel. The barrel, of course, is an oil one; nearly empty… It is also the other kind, at the wrong end of which no one wishes to be. Presently, most key players in the GIW firmly believe that they stand at the right end. Very few realise that actually they may all be at the wrong end.
Whether they stand on the right, at the centre or on the left of the political spectrum, are greenish or deep green, are in business, in government or in the opposition, wherever they happen to be on this planet, most present elites will be gone at most within ten years… and possibly a few billion people will also follow suit.
How could that be? This is where the “Tooth Fairy” and the “Dragon King” come in, as we shall soon see in a series of subsequent posts…
The point is, since 2012, humankind faces an unprecedented global energy, ecological and social situation, one it has never had to face since the end of the last Ice Age and the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, one that threatens the survival of this GIW that some refer to as “civilisation”… and still, some five years later almost no one has yet realised what’s going on.
In subsequent posts we will cover:
* The broad character of the present threat;
* What are its dynamics?
* What are its consequences?
* How to face the emerging reality? How to survive what is underway and emerge a winner?
All along we will progressively understand better the rationale for the above cryptocurrency technology specifications and we will go much beyond to figure out what this demand for a much broader “something else” is about.
As we progress please keep in mind that what follows is based on the most advanced, solid, evidenced research that GB is aware of, drawn from the work of thousands of researchers over five decades. In presenting this, GB’s aim is not to spell out any definitive “truth” as religions do. Instead the points are to present a critical perspective, alert about major dangers and to open up new possibilities in response to these dangers. In other words, based on this large body of research, the GB posts provide pointers. So, please, “don’t bite my finger but look where I am pointing” (as neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch used to say to his students) — look carefully and figure out matters for yourselves.
Two existential threats
Figure 1 — The Great Acceleration
Let’s begin with Figure 1. In recent decades, a whole flurry of parameters that track the activity and performance of the GIW all began to “shoot for the stars” in unison. The researchers who pointed this out call it the “Great Acceleration”.
The point is simple. To anyone with experience in the analysis of complex systems, this kind of flurry is symptomatic of a system that is self-destructing.
What the flurry does not tell us is the exact how and when of the breakdown. What it tells us with certainty is that there is no way the GIW as we currently know it can continue. This is the first of our second herd of elephants.
Faced with the prospect of the breakdown of the GIW in the very near future, faced with a bewildering morass of data about so many issues that are becoming entangled in collapse dynamics, is it at all possible to come to an understanding of humankind’s predicament that would actually enable us to extricate ourselves from the mounting troubles?
In recent months we have been able to begin to understand the how, when and why of the breakdown and more to the point have been able to figure out how “we” can extricate ourselves from it. By “we” GB means those smart enough to wake up to the challenges and act in timely fashion. For a whole host of reasons that will become progressively apparent, GB sees this as the largest opportunity since the advent of the first Industrial Revolution.
Douglas Adam’s Deep Thought’s ironical point was sternly emphasized by physicist David Bohm: “In scientific enquiries a crucial step is to ask the right question. Indeed each question contains presuppositions, largely implicit. If these presuppositions are wrong or confused, the question itself is wrong, in the sense that to try to answer it has no meaning. One has thus to inquire into the appropriateness of the question.”
Almost no one among present elites ever enquires into the appropriateness of the question, and so we all end up living in a kind of Shadok-world where billions of people end up pumping forever, money, debt, taxes, oil, gas, coal, biomass, sun, wind, while the Great Acceleration shoots to the stars…
However, when examined carefully, it is relatively easy to see that the flurry of Great Acceleration curves translates into two core, global and interrelated, existential threats. These are our next two thermodynamic elephants.
Since we split from chimps, pre-industrial humankind has relied on biomass for its livelihood. Since the 18th century Industrial Revolution, the GIW has become wholly dependent on fossil fuels (FFs), including to access biomass for food and other forms of bioenergy. Now, the GIW faces two existential thermodynamic threats:
1 — The rapid loss of access to depleting biomass stores; and
2 — The even more rapid loss of access to FFs
In short, unbeknown to world elites the GIW is in the process of losing access to all the forms of energy it depends on for its very existence. Addressing all other major issues, including concerning debt and global finance, climate change, as well as other ecological, social and resources challenges, has become contingent upon addressing the above threats successfully in record time.
What is the loss of access to bioenergy about?
Many decision-makers overlook the importance of bioenergy. Globally, photosynthesis-based power amounts to about 25TW (Terawatts), concerning food, fibre, building materials, and biofuels, versus only 17TW of fossil fuel-based power. However, the 25TW are accessible only through net energy from oil-derived transport fuels, now rapidly declining. In addition, access to the 25TW is actually under direct threat.
To understand the status of bioenergy it is necessary to first understand the global structure of life on Earth. Thanks to the pioneering work of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, we know that, over some 4 billion years, life has evolved into a self-regulating dynamic system structured to maintain at all times the conditions required for life to self-perpetuate. James Lovelock called this system “Gaia”. A number of scientists call this global system Earth-Life (See for exemple, Cockell, Charles, 2008, An introduction to the Earth-Life System, Cambridge University Press).
Over several decades, the Lovelock and Margulis Earth-Life hypothesis has evolved into a robust theory now amply corroborated with strong evidence. Fundamentally Earth-Life is a complex, open, thermodynamic system, fuelled by the sun, operating far from equilibrium and encompassing some 100km of the Earth’s crust, the whole biosphere and the atmosphere, all the way to where low orbit satellites roam.
Figure 2 — The global battery the GIW depends on
As shown summarily on Figure 2, through photosynthesis, Earth-Life stores the energy influx from the sun as chemical energy in the form of biomass and eventually fossil fuels. The distance from thermodynamic equilibrium between this stored energy and outer space is equivalent to a gigantic energy storage battery, the Earth-Life x Space Battery.
It took nearly 4 billion years of biological activity to trickle charge this battery (Net Primary Production per year, NPP/year). Humankind has used this stored energy to fuel the rise of civilisation, all the way to the present globalised industrial world (GIW). However, instead of letting it recharge, humankind has relentlessly depleted it, radiating the resulting low-quality heat to outer space.
Figure 3 — What is the global battery made of?
Figure 3 depicts the overall size and composition of the battery. Humankind lives on the thin sliver atop the battery. This battery sliver is made of two components: accessible bioenergy and accessible fossil fuels. Most fossil fuels are not recoverable, regardless of the technology used. The key point is that accessible bioenergy has declined drastically over the last 2000 years as humankind has been using each year increasingly more than the 2ZJ of NPP accruing per year.
Figure 4 — Rapidly depleting accessible bioenergy
As shown on Figure 4, the accessible part of the Earth-Life x Space battery’s bioenergy component is presently nearly depleted. At the beginning of the Common Era humanity still had access to more than 65,000 years of phytomass use (Ω index). In 2000 this had dropped to only about 1000 years and “ground zero” is around 2040. However, humans are not termites. They do not eat wood. So in practice we have to consider that the critical deadline is around 2030. An airplane crashing against a mountain keeps its integrity until the last moment. Instead, in the present case, the disintegration occurs long before ground zero.
An unseen threat raising hard questions
Figure 5 — What to do about the bioenergy elephant?
The 2015 PNAS paper by Schramski et al. went wholly unnoticed by world elites. Yet, as they point out in their paper: “The laws of thermodynamics have no mercy. Equilibrium [with outer space] is inhospitable, sterile, and final.”
Changing course rapidly to recharge the Earth-Life battery takes considerable additional energy over and above ensuring the continuity of existing energy supplies required to feed people and maintain the GIW. The bioenergy component being far too depleted, it must not be drained any further. It ensues that the sole pools of energy available to humankind in order to extricate itself from the dire situation the GIW is now in are what remains of the recoverable fossil fuels stocks and the direct solar influx.
With current technology, climate change and other ecological challenges strongly constrain ongoing fossil fuels use. Still, presently, both recharging the bioenergy battery component and simultaneously gaining access to the direct solar influx are wholly contingent upon ongoing access to the fossil fuels battery component and most critically access to oil.
This matter of access, to both bioenergy and oil, is another core component of the “global demand for something else”, that we began to identify in our second post and that we summarised in introductions to the present post. This something else, obviously, has to do with technology, but also, just as importantly, it concerns how we think, how we decide, and how we organise ourselves socially. To say that access to energy is central to those something else specs may seem trivial. It would be if it were not that we are losing access to all that, up to this point in time, was taken for granted. In other words we are in the process of identifying here a global demand for new means of access to energy that, due to the very nature of the issues, have to be wholly outside the current realm of means that are presently failing.
Those with some knowledge in the relevant art will instantly recognise that the above new access requirement also brings to the fore the demand for the entire set of something else specs, as we have spelt them out, and in particular the demand for a new class of networking technology, one that can scale sustainably and affordably to unprecedented levels of node densities and overall network size, as well as the demand for transactional means extending well beyond the scope of current cryptocurrencies.
Our second post detailed enough for now the demand for transactional means. Without anticipating too much on subsequent posts, regarding networking it suffices to note at this point that both the solar influx and humans are highly distributed around the planet. In short, efficient access to energy by distributed humans is an efficient networking matter, one that extends well beyond the scope of present networking (given that, as we will also detail subsequently, present networking is one of the fundamental reasons for the present loss of access).
Energy wise, the above conclusions will no doubt elicit instant responses of the kind: “what about PVs and windmills? We do have means…” GB will elaborate in subsequent posts about why PVs, windmills and much else in the realm of so-called “renewables” don’t “cut it”. For now however, before we may address those why, how and what questions, we must address the second thermodynamic elephant, the one having to do with oil. Besides much else, what is presently happening with that elephant is the most immediate answer to why “renewables don’t cut it”.
Indeed, why be concerned with oil specifically; don’t we have an oil glut and aren’t reserves big enough to last for decades? Or are we talking here about global warming, climate change and “stranded oil assets”? Well no, as we will soon see, the loss of access to energy from oil is taking place independently from any climate change policies and it is also taking place much sooner and more rapidly than global warming impacts. So the immediate key point is that presently access to all other forms of energy depends on transport fuels and that access to transport fuels is about 95% dependent on oil. Let’s stress this further. The loss of access to bioenergy and to oil-derived transport fuels translates into loss of access to all other fossil fuels and also to all the so-called “alternative” energies (photovoltaic, wind, etc.) as well as access to nuclear power. This is why achieving a thorough understanding of oil depletion has become vital. Without understanding the loss of access to oil, we cannot figure out how best to address the global demand for something else. This is also why our set of something else specs with at their core new means of access, new class of networking and new means of transacting value are crucial.
GB’s next post will focus on this second thermodynamic elephant, the loss of access to oil.
GB’s previous posts in the demand for something else series are:
Post 1: Hello, this is GB…
Post 2: Elephants in the cryptocurrency room — current fiat currencies have no future; however, cryptocurrencies can’t scale to the global demand for something else; in particular they require far too much energy and are overlaid on top of an Internet also requiring far too much energy; and, like fiat currencies, they are disconnected from the sole reliable and necessary anchor of value into the thermodynamics of any social activity.
 Bohm, David, 1980, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 28 — Bohm’s own emphasis.
 We draw here on the work of Schramski, J.R., Gattie, D.K., Brown, J. H., 2015. Human domination of the biosphere: rapid discharge of the earth-space battery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. (Doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1508353112)
 1ZJ, Zettajoule, is one trillion GJ or about one trillion average, large power stations.
 Note the contrast with economists’ talk of “market equilibrium”. There can’t be any economic activity unless the system is far from equilibrium, thermodynamically speaking. More fundamentally, the whole of “economics” is in fact a perpetual motion machine fantasy disconnected from thermodynamic reality.