Black Gold, Maximum Entropy (Redux)

The following article is about fossil fueled (‘fracking’ fueled) global warming climate change. It was written in 2013 and remains completely up to date because nobody has done anything to change the situation — except perhaps to make it worse. This article contains a little bit of science, a little bit of Marxism from John Bellamy Foster, some criticisms of Mr. Foster’s views from me, and one of my better rants on society’s negligence regarding climate change (or, some pointed suggestions for social change). By 2013, I had reached pessimistic conclusions about humanity’s willingness to seriously address global warming, and also about the value of my continuing to write about it. That I do and continue to make positive and “utopian” suggestions for socio-political change is entirely to express my solidarity with today’s youth (I have children), because otherwise I have no faith whatsoever in “the adults.”

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Black Gold, Maximum Entropy (Redux)
20 June 2019 (21 October 2013)

In his extensive article “The Fossil Fuels War” in Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster writes about the new expansion of oil exploration and production — the demise of Peak Oil — made possible by the development of technology to extract oil from “unconventional” sources, known variously as “shale oil” and “tar sands oil,” and he points to the inevitable consequences on climate. (1)

Those scheduled climatic effects are vividly presented in a new scientific report in which:

Scientists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa calculated that by 2047, plus or minus five years, the average temperatures in each year will be hotter across most parts of the planet than they had been at those locations in any year between 1860 and 2005. To put it another way, for a given geographic area, “the coldest year in the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past,” said Camilo Mora, the lead scientist on a paper published in the journal Nature. (2)

John Bellamy Foster also notes that there have been recent improvements in renewable energy technologies, whose use could be expanded to replace a portion of the power generation infrastructures based on fossil fuels. However, he is pessimistic that such replacements could form a prompt and complete transformation of national and global power generation systems.

No less remarkable technological developments, however, have arisen at the same time in relation to renewable energies, such as wind and solar, opening up the possibility of a more ecological path of development. Since 2009 solar (photovoltaic) module “prices have fallen off a cliff.” Although still accounting for a tiny percentage of electric-generating capacity in the United States, wind and solar have grown to about 13 percent of total German electricity production in 2012, with total renewables (including hydroelectric and biomass) accounting for about 20 percent. As the energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of fossil fuels has declined due to the depletion of cheap crude-oil supplies, wind and solar have become more competitive – with EROEIs above that of tar-sands oil, and in the case of wind even above conventional oil. Wind and solar, however, represent intermittent, location-specific sources of power that cannot easily cover baseload-power needs. Worse still, a massive conversion of the world’s energy infrastructure to renewables would take decades to accomplish when time is short.

I disagree with this pessimism and believe a massive conversion to renewable energy technologies can be accomplished much more quickly than started in mass media and John Bellamy Foster’s article. I made my case with numerous suggestions, estimates and examples in an article, “The Economic Function Of Energy,” intended to spur positive, creative and practical thinking about such a near-future conversion of energy infrastructure on a national scale. For example, I described a solar-powered system for generating the total electrical power consumed in the United States, which would be publicly owned and thus provide “free” electricity. (3)

Foster notes the foundational motivation of the fossil energy industry as stated by one of its leading CEOs, “my philosophy is to make money.” Concerns over possible environmental damage (from exploration or spills) and climate change (from carbon dioxide and methane emissions) are seen as unfortunate collateral inevitabilities to be minimized as possible, but without delaying extractive operations or seriously diminishing profitability.

Foster gives a good general summary of what is required to make a complete conversion nationally (say for electrical power) from fossil fuels to renewables (solar, wind, hydro), but he sees such a conversion as too monumental a project for our time, while I see it as an exciting and feasible technical challenge, an inspiring project for technophiles that would be liberating for society. Foster writes:

It follows that building an alternative energy infrastructure — without breaking the carbon budget — would require a tectonic shift in the direction of energy conservation and energy efficiency. However, stopping climate change and the destruction of the environment in general requires not just a new, more sustainable technology, greater efficiency, and the opening of channels for green investment and green jobs; it requires an ecological revolution that will alter our entire system of production and consumption, and create new systems geared to substantive equality, and ecological sustainability — a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.”

Yes, developing a mass consciousness of energy conservation and energy efficiency in an American society of unthinking wastefulness may indeed seem like a “revolutionary reconstitution of society at large.” But the real revolution here would be in the awakening of greater thought among the masses, to displace the unthinking aspects of behavior that enable wastefulness. That apparent barrier to the energy revolution would dissolve if confronted with forthright and consistent effort by the political leadership. The unappealing aspects of continuing climate change will undoubtedly increase the popularity of the idea of making such a revolutionary transition. As Foster says: “In today’s world, the undermining of the lifeworld of the great majority of the population is occurring in relation to both economy and environment.”

John Bellamy Foster sees the conversion of most power generation infrastructure from a reliance on fossil fuels to renewables as too daunting a technical challenge for the near term, and he believes that worsening climate change will spur the rise of popular movements that could revolutionize society so that it meets the energy conversion challenge in the long term.

We can therefore expect the most radical movements to emerge precisely where economic and ecological crises converge on the lives of the underlying population. Given the nature of capitalism and imperialism and the exigencies of the global environmental crisis, a new, revolutionary environmental proletariat is likely to arise most powerfully and most decisively in the global South.

I believe just the opposite, that the technical challenge is well within present capabilities and has been for many years, but that the conversion to renewables will never occur because most people operate from mental inertia that is programmed to keep them on the rails of the capitalist economics and environmental exploitation we see today.

People everywhere want to replicate and experience the advantages of the colonial powers of the 19th century (e.g., Britain) and the industrial-consumerist powers of the 20th century (e.g., the U.S.A.). This is why China builds huge dams and burns enormous quantities of coal, fatally fouling its air; and why southern Europe and the southern U.S. are flooded with economic refugees from the “global South.”

James Hansen is quoted in Foster’s article saying “It is not an exaggeration to suggest, based on the best available scientific evidence, that burning all fossil fuels could result in the planet being not only ice-free but human-free.”

And this is precisely what will happen, because “my philosophy is to make money” is the end-all-and-be-all everywhere, whether in rich northern capitalist states or the impoverished global south seeking “to develop.”

Foster concludes his article with lyrically wishful Marxist romanticism.

Under these conditions what is needed is a decades-long ecological revolution, in which an emergent humanity will once again, as it has innumerable times before, reinvent itself, transforming its existing relations of production and the entire realm of social existence, in order to generate a restored metabolism with nature and a whole new world of substantive equality as the key to sustainable human development. This is the peculiar “challenge and burden of our historical time.”

There is no objective evidence to suggest this is anything other than a fantasy. Instead, it seems realistic to conclude that humanity’s conceptual and social limitations will lead to its premature extinction sooner than need be the case because of the onset of hostile environmental conditions due to the sun expanding into a red giant. Such a premature extinction would not be a “bad thing” for Planet Earth, which would continue unperturbed without another of the millions of species that have appeared and disappeared during the course of life on Earth. Other forms of life will continue; why should we imagine that humanity is so special that it deserves particular concern as regards continuing to be one of the carriers of life on this planet?

Many people besides archeological scholars have wondered why the Maya people in the southern lowlands of Central America abandoned their splendid stone ceremonial cities and pyramids about 1000 years ago, and which now lie in ruins under jungle vegetation. (4) The basic reason was that the ancient Mayan public dumped the excessive overhead of a top-heavy oppressive and burdensome culture during a time of environmental stress (droughts) so as to better attend to personal survival. Manning wars of rivalry between royal elites did not ultimately satisfy the basic needs of the “proletariate.” They did not so much revolt to establish a new social order as simply walk away into the jungle to disappear from the existing order, letting it collapse from lack of support. If a similar disorganized mass movement of abandonment of the organized economy and socio-political class structure were to take hold for most of the “proletariate” today then one could begin to speculate about the possibilities for the emergence of alternative types of post-capitalist societies, and following that to speculate on a new relation of humanity to the environment and the prospects for an extended period of highly developed human culture on Planet Earth.

Humanity is terminally delirious with fossil fuel fever. “Climate change will proceed unhindered, as will the uninterrupted rush by humanity to exploit all sources of fossil fuels. The moral choice between restraint for the good of all life versus gaining an immediate boost to private power will always be won by the latter.” My conclusion is not what I want, but what I see as the inevitable consequence of what is. (5)

Matthew Auzanneau has written about one example of humanity’s fossil fuel delirium, the necessarily short-lived shale oil boom in North Dakota and the avid involvement of the investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs in it, putting their philosophy into practice “to make money.” I see Auzanneau’s article as support for my gloomy conclusion, and it was the launching point for my concluding rant. (6)

I think that people will overwhelmingly do nothing in the form of restraint on CO2 emissions and yet be frantic about gouging out every ounce of oil and coal they can get to ASAP (e.g., China, North Dakota), to burn it up and drive whatever power and money schemes they are pushing. As a result, I no longer have any enthusiasm for writing about alternative energy systems. Most people simply want to maintain the inertia of their current thinking and economic activity, to maintain their present forms of exploitation (businesses). They do not want any changes to their existing modes of energy waste and financial accumulation (e.g., fracking for domestic-use oil, mining shale oil and coal for export, big engines in oversized truck-like cars for mindless driving, suburbia, capitalism commodifying and discounting the environment), just more of the same so they can “get their share,” especially “before it runs out.” Hurricanes, tornadoes, rising seas, droughts, months-long wildfires, the spread of tropical diseases and parasites to temperate latitudes, none of that matters in comparison to keeping on with getting “more.” We have a quarterly profits expectation, long-term attention-deficit syndrome, infantile hyperactive, selfish spoiled-brat economic mentality. Nobody but nobody wants to be the first person, or in the first class or generation to “make the sacrifice” to “give up the advantages” of our eco-catastrophic ways in order to shift a nation, and humanity, to a sustainable alternative. Planet Earth could care less, it will shrug us off as just one more ephemeral slime mold, and our dust will be ground into the grains of future rocks over which advanced cockroaches will stride, perhaps as rulers of Planet Earth.

Actually, the disintegration we see and can anticipate fits in well with the trend to be expected from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the relentless increase of entropy — disorder — with the widest dispersal of energy and structure (into lack of structure) as the ultimate end.

Any physical system that can absorb and emit energy, and perform work on other physical systems external to it, is a thermodynamic system (e.g., the combustible gas mixture within a piston engine cylinder). The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that any isolated thermodynamic system must ultimately degrade; such degradation is quantified as an increase in the thermodynamic property of the system called its entropy. Consequently, all real engines convert energy (e.g., heat) to work (e.g., torque) with less than 100% efficiency, perpetual motion machines are impossible, and the entropy of the entire universe relentlessly increases.

The great physicist Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide (in 1906) while in a state of clinical depression it is said after contemplating the implacable increase of universal entropy, his most penetrating discovery about statistical (many particle) thermodynamic systems. Clearly, he had a strong belief that humanity mattered. Perhaps if he had been able to overcome that misconception he would not have fatally despaired. His gravestone in the Central Cemetery in Vienna is inscribed with his famous formula for the entropy of a statistical thermodynamic system, S = k·Ln(W), where S is the entropy of a thermodynamic system, k is Boltzmann’s constant (1.38065 x 10^-23 joules/degree-Kelvin), Ln is the mathematical function called the natural logarithm, and W is Wahrscheinlichkeit, a German word meaning the number of (unobservable) “ways” in which the (observable) thermodynamic state of a system can be realized by assigning different positions and momenta to the many molecules of that system. (7)

W can be thought of as the number of ways the system can arrange itself microscopically (its multitude of molecular positions and velocities) so as to exhibit a specific set of values of observable macroscopic properties (a thermodynamic state), like: temperature at 70 degrees Celsius, pressure at 101,325 Pascals or equivalently 14.696 pounds per square inch (psi). A thermodynamic state that can only be achieved by any of a small number of possible microscopic arrangements is one of high order and has low entropy. A thermodynamic state that can be achieved with any of a large number of possible microscopic arrangements is one of low order, that is to say of disorder, and has a high entropy. At the inception of the Big Bang, the universe was a point of energy and its entropy was very low. Today, 13.8 billion years later, the universe is an expanse of perhaps 1.3 x 10^23 km that is largely void with a sparse scattering of matter and radiation, and historically maximum entropy.

Here on Earth the black gold rush will eventually burn itself out and bequeath us a state of increased disorder that devoured opportunities for transformation.

Acknowledgment: Gilles d’Aymery brought my attention to Notes 1 and 6, which spurred me to write this article.

Notes
[except for more recent re-postings in 3 and 5, websites were active on 21 October 2013]

1.  John Bellamy Foster, “The Fossil Fuels War,” Monthly Review, 2013, Volume 65, Issue 04 (September), http://monthlyreview.org/2013/09/01/fossil-fuels-war

2.  Justin Gillis, “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” The New York Times, October 9, 2013,
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/science/earth/by-2047-coldest-years-will-be-warmer-than-hottest-in-past.html?_r=0

3.  Manuel García, Jr., “The Economic Function Of Energy,”
Swans, 27 February 2012,
http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci41.html
updated re-posting:
Energy For Society In Balance With Nature
8 June 2015
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2015/06/08/energy-for-society-in-balance-with-nature/

4.  “Classic Maya Collapse”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_Maya_collapse

5.  Manuel García, Jr., “Winter Reflections, 2012,” Swans, 17 December 2012,
http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci59.html
updated re-posting:
Winter Reflections (recycled)
31 December 2016
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2016/12/31/winter-reflections-recycled/

6.  Matthew Auzanneau, “The short future of oil shale boom seen by Goldman Sachs,” October 8, 2013,
http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&u=http://petrole.blog.lemonde.fr/2013/10/08/le-court-avenir-du-petrole-de-schiste-vu-par-goldman-sachs/&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dle-court-avenir-du-petrole-de-schiste-vu-par-goldman-sachs
[A Google translation of Matthew Auzanneau’s blog in French, which focuses on oil. This post is about the Goldman Sachs involvement with the shale oil boom in North Dakota.]

7.  “Ludwig Boltzmann”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_Boltzmann

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Originally published as:

Black Gold, Maximum Entropy
21 October 2013
http://www.swans.com/library/art19/mgarci73.html

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Two Worlds

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Two Worlds

There are only two worlds now: the Included and the Excluded; and there are only two kinds of people: those who care about it, and those who don’t.

The Included World hastens to fortify its walls, gunmen, and accountants enclosing its select archipelago of oases defining its territory of secure consuming obliviousness, against the straining pressure of the rising flood from bursting Exclusion, compressed against its own outflow by Inclusion’s higher thicker dams holding back that impoundment of anguish swelling with frigid impoverishment and churning into boiling panicked stampedes toward the fabled cervixes of Inclusion, like turbulent torrents of delirious sperm racing up narrow clogged fallopian tubes, hurling themselves toward feverish beatific visions of higher bountiful fruition, while all around everywhere those exhausted in body, mind and spirit by the blind rush for survival fall out unseen to stagnate in the worlds’ gutters littered with the failures of luck and the refuse of compassionless inattention, to wither in the open, waste away in the dark, and be picked off by soulless scavengers.

Beyond the age of three, unless they thereafter ferociously resist the dissolution of their personal integrity by the ambient mass psychosis, the potentially Included increasingly devolve into zombies absorbed into generic personal fogs of indoctrinated illusions roboticizing them to mesh into enslaving gear trains of unconscious commercialized self-absorption as redundant units in the anthill pyramids of petty-minded potentates contending for greater leadership in Inclusion’s assault on the future. The waste heat of Included thoughtless excess rains down a desiccating coldness of heart onto the Excluded whose wellsprings of vitality are parasitically sucked out by remote greed, inundating the castaways with a desolation of uncaring, and garrotting them by the concentration of their bombarded fecundity.

Day after day the buoyant Included step with practiced ignorance over the unnoticed corpses of expired Excluded, fallen in their parallel isolation from within the descending crowd, across the pathways of Inclusion’s unrelenting drives of politicked ascendancy toward higher rungs of privilege and prestige, toward ampler harvests of enriching sales, toward wider presences of blaring advertisement in the electronic fields of automated rent-seeking, and toward grander delusions of self-worth measured by volumes of automated vapid exaltation, and looted cash.

In time the violent dams erected by Inclusion will collapse like the ice dams of the Pleistocene, with ensuing floods scouring to scablands the now plump islands of contentment, homogenizing the muddy sea of humanity. When? How? Who knows? But Nature eventually balances opposing forces, levels steep-sided heights, and equates differences in the time-unravelling chaos of entropy. The personal you, and all of your stuff, will be carried off by time’s unceasing undercurrent of dissipation. All your scheming and all your dreaming will be dissolved away, like everyone else’s, and the only fleeting remnant of any real worth you as a conscious organism may have had will be the fading memories in succeeding generations of if you had cared and how you had shared. Be happy, this is good, it means we each can know how to live enlightened and then come to die with an honest self-respect free of regrets.

Indifferent Nature dictates the Two Worlds must merge into One, but by the whimsical randomness of evolution our human species has uniquely been granted the limited power of deciding, soon, if that future One will be alive for all, or dead for us. Be happy, this is good, it means we can collectively know how to live as a socially enlightened species in harmony with all life, and with honest self-respect free of regrets — if we chose to.

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Climate Crisis, Elite Panic, and Mass Exclusion

John Davis’s interesting article in Counterpunch,

Are We Moderns Or Terrestrials?
7 February 2019
https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/02/07/are-we-moderns-or-terrestrials/

Describes the idea of “social triage” practiced by a global wealth elite, to exclude the mass of Earth’s people from the finite natural bounty our planet can supply to humanity; this drive being accelerated by the obvious threats of the accelerating Climate Crisis. Davis writes:

In [the book] Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, 2018, Bruno Latour, the French philosopher and sociologist, writes, “To the migrants from outside who have to cross borders and leave their countries at the price of immense tragedies, we must, from now on, add the migrants from inside who, while remaining in place, are experiencing the drama of seeing themselves left behind by their own countries”.

Davis’s article reminds me of earlier sallies on this topic.

The most prescient, to my mind, was Tony Judt’s essay The Social Question Redivivus, which appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1997 (and is still behind a paywall) and was reprinted as the last selection in Judt’s book Reappraisals, Reflections On The Forgotten Twentieth Century (Penguin Books, 2008). Except for the mention of Climate Change, Judt’s 1997 article laid out a very detailed exposition of the same form of triage as Davis (and Latour) now describe 22 years later.

I wrote a short gloss on Judt’s books and this topic in particular as

Tony Judt, Edward Snowden, And “The Excluded”
1 July 2013
http://swans.com/library/art19/mgarci66.html

Also, on the idea of triage being practiced by the global wealth elite to separate “the excluded” from the finite bounty of the Earth, a very similar idea formed the core of Joseph Heller’s 1994 novel Closing Time (Simon and Schuster, 1994), which is both a reminiscence of their youth by WWII generation Brooklyn NY Jews, and a scathing satire of late 20th century American political attitudes. In the novel, a nitwit President of the U.S. plays a video game called Triage, which is actually a command console connected to an underground technological complex (based on the Reagan Administration idea of an underground mobile MX missile complex) for secretly controlling the day-to-day process of manipulating both selected individuals and the population as a whole, and ultimately of mass exclusion by nuclear war.

Davis notes that the basic practice by wealth elites of working hard to exclude the mass of people from prosperity, and to enslave them, is ancient. His (and Latour’s) point is that climate change is adding pressure to that elite drive for mass immiseration.

The implication of the above is that some form of serious and vigorous populist movement that successfully addresses climate change despite elite opposition (combining geo-technical strategies of direct mitigation, individual and societal adaptation, and — obviously — economic justice, a.k.a. “socialism”) is necessary for an organized human survival with decency.

We all know the problem. Our challenge (which may be tragically beyond us) is to triumph over the Climate Crisis and the elite selfishness driving it.

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Black Gold, Maximum Entropy

Peak Oil is dead, long live fracking, my climate change is gonna’ come, Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant. A meditative rant on our scheduled progression from black gold delirium to becalmed oblivion is cited. Oil shale, tar sands, and unconventional fossil fuels are linked to climate change by anthropogenic global warming, which is undamped by human restraint in the forms of energy efficiency, energy conservation and relinquishing the combustion of hydrocarbons for civilization’s heat energy. Death is preferable to change, adaptation is unthinkable, and the inevitable consequences are anticipated as tolerable by denial. All our elaborations will melt into a rising tide of entropy.

Black Gold, Maximum Entropy
21 October 2013
http://www.swans.com/library/art19/mgarci73.html

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