Energy And Civilization: a review

Also published at Resilience.org.

If you were to find yourself huddled with a small group of people in a post-crash, post-internet world, hoping to recreate some of the comforts of civilization, you’d do well to have saved a printed copy of Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History.

Smil’s new 550-page magnum opus would help you understand why for most applications a draft horse is a more efficient engine than an ox – but only if you utilize an effective harness, which is well illustrated. He could help you decide whether building a canal or a hard-topped road would be a more productive use of your energies. When you were ready to build capstans or block-and-tackle mechanisms for accomplishing heavy tasks, his discussion and his illustrations would be invaluable.

But hold those thoughts of apocalypse for a moment. Smil’s book is not written as a doomer’s handbook, but as a thorough guide to the role of energy conversions in human history to date. Based on his 1994 book Energy in World History, the new book is about 60% longer and includes 40% more illustrations.

Though the initial chapters on prehistory are understandably brief, Smil lays the groundwork with his discussion of the dependency of all living organisms on their ability to acquire enough energy in usable forms.

The earliest humanoids had some distinct advantages and liabilities in this regard. Unlike other primates, humans evolved to walk on two feet all the time, not just occasionally. Ungainly though this “sequence of arrested falls” may be, “human walking costs about 75% less energy than both quadrupedal and bipedal walking in chimpanzees.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 22)

What to do with all that saved energy? Just think:

The human brain claims 20–25% of resting metabolic energy, compared to 8–10% in other primates and just 3–5% in other mammals.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 23)

In his discussion of the earliest agricultures, a recurring theme is brought forward: energy availability is always a limiting factor, but other social factors also come into play throughout history. In one sense, Smil explains, the move from foraging to farming was a step backwards:

Net energy returns of early farming were often inferior to those of earlier or concurrent foraging activities. Compared to foraging, early farming usually required higher human energy inputs – but it could support higher population densities and provide a more reliable food supply.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 42)

The higher population densities allowed a significant number of people to work at tasks not immediately connected to securing daily energy requirements. The result, over many millennia, was the development of new materials, tools and processes.

Smil gives succinct explanations of why the smelting of brass and bronze was less energy-intensive than production of pure copper. Likewise he illustrates why the iron age, with its much higher energy requirements, resulted in widespread deforestation, and iron production was necessarily very limited until humans learned to exploit coal deposits in the most recent centuries.

Cooking snails in a pot over an open fire. In Energy and Civilization, Smil covers topics as diverse as the importance of learning to use fire to supply the energy-rich foods humans need; the gradual deployment of better sails which allowed mariners to sail closer to the wind; and the huge boost in information consumption that occurred a century ago due to a sudden drop in the energy cost of printing. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom, via Wikimedia Commons.

Energy explosion

The past two hundred years of fossil-fuel-powered civilization takes up the biggest chunk of the book. But the effective use of fossil fuels had to be preceded by many centuries of development in metallurgy, chemistry, understanding of electromagnetism, and a wide array of associated technologies.

While making clear how drastically human civilizations have changed in the last several generations, Smil also takes care to point out that even the most recent energy transitions didn’t take place all at once.

While the railways were taking over long-distance shipments and travel, the horse-drawn transport of goods and people dominated in all rapidly growing cities of Europe and North America.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 185)

Likewise the switches from wood to coal or from coal to oil happened only with long overlaps:

The two common impressions – that the twentieth century was dominated by oil, much as the nineteenth century was dominated by coal – are both wrong: wood was the most important fuel before 1900 and, taken as a whole, the twentieth century was still dominated by coal. My best calculations show coal about 15% ahead of crude oil …” (Energy and Civilization, pg 275)

Smil draws an important lesson for the future from his careful examination of the past:

Every transition to a new form of energy supply has to be powered by the intensive deployment of existing energies and prime movers: the transition from wood to coal had to be energized by human muscles, coal combustion powered the development of oil, and … today’s solar photovoltaic cells and wind turbines are embodiments of fossil energies required to smelt the requisite metals, synthesize the needed plastics, and process other materials requiring high energy inputs.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 230)

A missing chapter

Energy and Civilization is a very ambitious book, covering a wide spread of history and science with clarity. But a significant omission is any discussion of the role of slavery or colonialism in the rise of western Europe.

Smil does note the extensive exploitation of slave energy in ancient construction works, and slave energy in rowing the war ships of the democratic cities in ancient Greece. He carefully calculates the power output needed for these projects, whether supplied by slaves, peasants, or animals.

In his look at recent European economies, Smil also notes the extensive use of physical and child labour that occurred simultaneously with the growth of fossil-fueled industry. For example, he describes the brutal work conditions endured by women and girls who carried coal up long ladders from Scottish coal mines, in the period before effective machinery was developed for this purpose.

But what of the 20 million or more slaves taken from Africa to work in the European colonies of the “New World”? Did the collected energies of all these unwilling participants play no notable role in the progress of European economies?

Likewise, vast quantities of resources in the Americas, including oil-rich marine mammals and old-growth forests, were exploited by the colonies for the benefit of European nations which had run short of these important energy commodities. Did this sudden influx of energy wealth play a role in European supremacy over the past few centuries? Attention to such questions would have made Energy and Civilization a more complete look at our history.

An uncertain future

Smil closes the book with a well-composed rumination on our current predicaments and the energy constraints on our future.

While the timing of transition is uncertain, Smil leaves little doubt that a shift away from fossil fuels is necessary, inevitable, and very difficult. Necessary, because fossil fuel consumption is rapidly destabilizing our climate. Inevitable, because fossil fuel reserves are being depleted and will not regenerate in any relevant timeframe. Difficult, both because our industrial economies are based on a steady growth in consumption, and because much of the global population still doesn’t have access to a sufficient quantity of energy to provide even the basic necessities for a healthy life.

The change, then, should be led by those who are now consuming quantities of energy far beyond the level where this consumption furthers human development.

Average per capita energy consumption and the human development index in 2010. Smil, Energy and Civilization, pg 363

 

Smil notes that energy consumption rises in correlation with the Human Development Index up to a point. But increases in energy use beyond, roughly the level of present-day Turkey or Italy, provide no significant boost in Human Development. Some of the ways we consume a lot of energy, he argues, are pointless, wasteful and ineffective.

In affluent countries, he concludes,

Growing energy use cannot be equated with effective adaptations and we should be able to stop and even to reverse that trend …. Indeed, high energy use by itself does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens.

Opportunities for a grand transition to less energy-intensive society can be found primarily among the world’s preeminent abusers of energy and materials in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Many of these savings could be surprisingly easy to realize.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 439)

Smil’s book would indeed be a helpful post-crash guide – but it would be much better if we heed the lessons, and save the valuable aspects of civilization, before apocalypse overtakes us.

 

Top photo: Common factory produced brass olive oil lamp from Italy, c. late 19th century, adapted from photo on Wikimedia Commons.

salsify etcetera

The colours of June: they’re often at their most intense at the smallest scales. Today’s photos feature wild and cultivated beauties growing around the yard right now.

Yellow salsify goes by many aliases. Goat’s beard. Johnnie-go-to-bed-at-noon (for its flower’s habit of opening in the early morning sunshine, but folding back into a bud in the midday heat). Oysterplant (for the taste of its root). Foragers say the buds and the roots are a delicious wild edible, but ours are scarce and so we’re happy to leave them grow in the meadow.

Yellow Salsify II (click images for larger view)

In the flower garden the cultivated irises are currently providing the most vivid splash of colour.

blue as midnight

 

all that glitters

The daisy fleabane, below, does well in full sun on our sandy dune. Although its ability to repel fleas is disputed it apparently attracts many other insects, as it is visited by a wide variety of pollinators.

pink wind

 

A few days of bright sunshine are enough to dry the small mushrooms that popped up in our rock garden, fracturing some into distinctly floral patterns.

rock garden

Along a fenceline a wild raspberry has taken root and is spreading rapidly. Time will tell if it bears delicious fruit, or merely delights us with the colour and texture of its leaves.

 

raspberry hedge

 

Top photo: Yellow Salsify Iclick here for larger view

birds birds birds

Today’s post features just a few of the birds seen in the waters, on the shore, and in the treetops in recent weeks in our neighbourhood.

Dive (click images for larger views)

 

Angles

 

Swimming in green

 

Perched

 

Killdeer in dune grass

 

Rocky shore

 

Portrait

 

Night falls

 

Motion studies, or Thanks for all the fish

 

tricks of the light

While the sun is low or storm clouds blow through, light beams bend and scatter, painting sky and water in extraordinary tints.

Purple Beacon – May 3, 2017, 8:30 pm (click images for larger views)

 

Fishing Party – May 27, 2017, 8:50 pm

Between thunderstorms last night, a vivid rainbow fragment held its place over Lake Ontario for twenty minutes or more.

Rainbow Rock – May 30, 2017, 8:20 pm

 

Rainbow Gap – May 30, 2017, 8:20 pm

The standard rectangular framing imposed by digital cameras is a reasonable default for most images. But the scene below vibrated on so many dimensions that it called for a less static framing.

What’s the buzz? – May 30, 2017, 8:15 pm

As a full moon ascended over the lake a few weeks ago, a kayaker simply needed to backpaddle patiently and hold the right position, waiting for the moon to rise behind the lighthouse. A thin cloud across the moon’s face was an additional lucky stroke.

moonrise – May 10, 2017, 8:35 pm

The Carbon Code – imperfect answers to impossible questions

Also published at Resilience.org.

“How can we reconcile our desire to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change with our dependence on the systems that cause it? How can we demand that industry and governments reduce their pollution, when ultimately we are the ones buying the polluting products and contributing to the emissions that harm our shared biosphere?”

These thorny questions are at the heart of Brett Favaro’s new book The Carbon Code (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). While he  readily concedes there can be no perfect answers, his book provides a helpful framework for working towards the immediate, ongoing carbon emission reductions that most of us already know are necessary.

Favaro’s proposals may sound modest, but his carbon code could play an important role if it is widely adopted by individuals, by civil organizations – churches, labour unions, universities – and by governments.

As a marine biologist at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, Favaro is keenly aware of the urgency of the problem. “Conservation is a frankly devastating field to be in,” he writes. “Much of what we do deals in quantifying how many species are declining or going extinct  ….”

He recognizes that it is too late to prevent climate catastrophe, but that doesn’t lessen the impetus to action:

There’s no getting around the prospect of droughts and resource wars, and the creation of climate refugees is certain. But there’s a big difference between a world afflicted by 2-degree warming and one warmed by 3, 4, or even more degrees.”

In other words, we can act now to prevent climate chaos going from worse to worst.

The code of conduct that Favaro presents is designed to help us be conscious of the carbon impacts of our own lives, and work steadily toward the goal of a nearly-complete cessation of carbon emissions.

The carbon code of conduct consists of four “R” principles that must be applied to one’s carbon usage:

1. Reduce your use of carbon as much as possible.

2. Replace carbon-intensive activities with those that use less carbon to achieve the same outcome.

3. Refine the activity to get the most benefit for each unit of carbon emitted.

4. Finally, Rehabilitate the atmosphere by offsetting carbon usage.”

There’s a good bit of wiggle room in each of those four ’R’s, and Favaro presents that flexibility not as a bug but as a feature. “Codes of conduct are not the same thing as laws – laws are dichotomous, and you are either following them or you’re not,” he says. “Codes of conduct are interpretable and general and are designed to shape expectations.”

Street level

The bulk of the book is given to discussion of how we can apply the carbon code to home energy use, day-to-day transportation, a lower-carbon diet, and long distance travel.

There is a heavy emphasis on a transition to electric cars – an emphasis that I’d say is one of the book’s weaker points. For one thing, Favaro overstates the energy efficiency of electric vehicles.

EVs are far more efficient. Whereas only around 20% of the potential energy stored in a liter of gasoline actually goes to making an ICE [Internal Combustion Engine] car move, EVs convert about 60% of their stored energy into motion ….”

In a narrow sense this is true, but it ignores the conversion costs in common methods of producing the electricity that charges the batteries. A typical fossil-fueled generating plant operates in the range of 35% energy efficiency. So the actual efficiency of an electric vehicle is likely to be closer to 35% X 60%, or 21% – in other words, not significantly better than the internal combustion engine.

By the same token, if a large proportion of new renewable energy capacity over the next 15 years must be devoted to charging electric cars, it will be extremely challenging to simultaneously switch home heating, lighting and cooling processes away from fossil fuel reliance.

Yet if the principles of Favaro’s carbon code were followed, we would not only stop building internal combustion cars, we would also make the new electric cars smaller and lighter, provide strong incentives to reduce the number of miles they travel (especially miles with only one passenger), and rapidly improve bicycling networks and public transit facilities to get people out of cars for most of their ordinary transportation. To his credit, Favaro recognizes the importance of all these steps.

Flight paths

As a researcher invited to many international conferences, and a person who lives in Newfoundland but whose family is based in far-away British Columbia, Favaro has given a lot of thought to the conundrum of air travel. He notes that most of the readers of his book will be members of a particular global elite: the small percentage of the world’s population who board a plane more than a few times in their lives.

We members of that elite group have a disproportionate carbon footprint, and therefore we bear particular responsibility for carbon emission reductions.

The Air Transport Action Group, a UK-based industry association, estimated that the airline industry accounts for about 2% of global CO2 emissions. That may sound small, but given the tiny percentage of the world population that flies regularly, it represents a massive outlier in terms of carbon-intensive behaviors. In the United States, air travel is responsible for about 8% of the country’s emissions ….”

Favaro is keenly aware that if the Carbon Code were read as “never get on an airplane again for the rest of your life”, hardly anyone would adopt the code (and those few who did would be ostracized from professional activities and in many cases cut off from family). Yet the four principles of the Carbon Code can be very helpful in deciding when, where and how often to use the most carbon-intensive means of transportation.

Remember that ultimately all of humanity needs to mostly stop using fossil fuels to achieve climate stability. Therefore, just like with your personal travel, your default assumption should be that no flights are necessary, and then from there you make the case for each flight you take.”

The Carbon Code is a wise, carefully optimistic book. Let’s hope it is widely read and that individuals and organizations take the Carbon Code to heart.

 

Top photo: temporary parking garage in vacant lot in Manhattan, July 2013.

the rock blooms

On a tiny island in a small lake at the southern edge of the Canadian shield, flowers grow in the few millimeters of soil that collects in the crevices.

island (click images for larger versions)

 

red green and white

 

shadow

 

edgeflower

A glistening trove of clam shells lies submerged at one side of the island, the remains of some fine dining by one of the lake’s inhabitants – perhaps an otter?

shell game

Back on the mainland, spring flowers have come into bloom before the forest canopy envelops them in shade.

soft as yellow

The forest floor is carpeted with one of the most delicious woodland vegetables – wild leeks, aka ramps, wood leeks, or wild garlic. Noah Richler has a good read on why this allium should be harvested sparingly, and never too early in the spring.

wild leek lunch

 

Top photo: grounded by pink (click here for larger version)

Higher Ground

With Lake Ontario at record high levels, coastal marshes have now spilled over large areas which are normally more or less dry land.

Edges (click images for larger view)

To take pictures along the walking trail along Bowmanville Creek at the north side of Bowmanville Marsh, you need to add hip waders to your photography kit – mere knee-high boots will only get you around the edges of this wetland.

Mirror

Suspension

Though the bare ground has been well under the waters for weeks now, many of the moist woodland species appear to be thriving.

 

In the Catbird Seat

Layers

Mollusc II

The meadow at the east end of West Beach Road, just 100 meters from the Lake Ontario shoreline, also teems with activity.

With masses of rotting wood from generations of huge willow trees along the edge of this meadow, there are billions of ants – now all flushed out of the ground to find a dry perch. Anything sticking out of the water – a blade of grass, stem of last year’s goldenrod, or the odd passing photographer – soon acquires a population of ants. Myrmecophobes be forewarned.

Colonies

But there are bigger animals making the grass rustle – schools of carp now swim and splash through this meadow.

Velocity

Patterns

If you are a bottom feeder this is fine dining.

Mouth

Top photo: Return (click here for larger image)

Being right, and being persuasive: a primer on ‘talking climate’

Also published at Resilience.org.

Given that most people in industrialized countries accept that climate change is a scientific reality, why do so few rank climate change as one of their high priorities? Why do so few people discuss climate change with their families, friends, and neighbours? Are clear explanations of the ‘big numbers’ of climate change a good foundation for public engagement?

These are among the key questions in a thought-provoking new book by Adam Corner and Jamie Clarke – Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement.

In a brief review of climate change as a public policy issue, Corner and Clarke make the point that climate change action was initially shaped by international responses to the ozone layer depletion and the problem of acid rain. In these cases technocrats in research, government and industry were able to frame the problem and implement solutions with little need for deep public engagement.

The same model might once have worked for climate change response. But today, we are faced with a situation where climate change will be an ongoing crisis for at least several generations. Corner and Clarke argue that responding to climate change will require public engagement that is both deep and broad.

That kind of engagement can only be built through wide-ranging public conversations which tap into people’s deepest values – and climate change communicators must learn from social science research on what works, and what doesn’t work, in growing a public consensus.

Talking Climate is at its best in explaining the limitations of dominant climate change communication threads. But the book is disappointingly weak in describing the ‘public conversations’ that the authors say are so important.

 


Narratives and numbers

“Stories – rather than scientific facts – are the vehicles with which to build public engagement”, Corner and Clarke say. But climate policy is most often framed by scientifically valid and scientifically important numbers which remain abstract to most people. In particular, the concept of a 2°C limit to overall global warming has received oceans of ink, and this concept was the key component of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, the 2° warming threshold does not help move climate change from a ‘scientific reality’ to a ‘social reality’:

In research conducted just before the Paris negotiations with members of the UK public, we found that people were baffled by the 2 degrees concept and puzzled that the challenge of climate change would be expressed in such a way. … People understandably gauge temperature changes according to their everyday experiences, and a daily temperature fluctuation of 2 degrees is inconsequential, pleasant even – so why should they worry?

“Being right is not the same as being persuasive,” Corner and Clarke add, “and the ‘big numbers’ of the climate change and energy debate do not speak to the lived experience of ordinary people going about their daily lives ….”

While they cite interesting research on what doesn’t work in building public engagement, the book is frustratingly skimpy on what does work.

In particular, there are no good examples of the narratives or stories that the authors hold out as the primary way most people make sense of the world.

“Narratives have a setting, a plot (beginning, middle, and end), characters (heroes, villains, and victims), and a moral of the story,” Corner and Clarke write. How literally should we read that statement? What are some examples of stories that have emerged to help people understand climate change and link their responses to their deepest values? Unfortunately we’re left guessing.

Likewise, the authors write that they have been involved with several public consultation projects that helped build public engagement around climate change. How did these projects select or attract participants, given that only a small percentage of the population regards climate change as an issue of deep personal importance?

Talking Climate packs a lot of important research and valuable perspectives into a mere 125 pages, plus notes. Another 25 pages outlining successful communication efforts might have made it an even better book.

Photos: rainbow over South Dakota grasslands, and sagebrush in Badlands National Park, June 2014.

Coastal Engineering

Lake Ontario and the coastal marshes are near record highs this spring. While this can lead to sleepless nights due to fears of flooding, the high water also makes for great kayaking and wonderful views at sunset and sunrise.

Port Darlington cottages (click image for larger view)

 

Channel Sunset (click image for larger view)

 

Drydock (click image for larger view)

 

Breakwater (click image for larger view)

 

Electricallusion (click image for larger view)

 

Top photo: Westbound Express (click here for larger view)

Marsh monoculture – invasive phragmites and the threat to wetlands

We’ve all seen those amazingly tall reeds with the feathery seed heads that glow in the autumn sunset and last right through the winter, and which have appeared in dense stands on roadsides wherever there’s a bit of water.

Those beautiful reeds are phragmites, and they’re deadly to nearly every other plant, bird, amphibian and predator in our wetlands.

That was the message in a sobering talk by Janice M. Gilbert on April 19. Since there are two big marshes in my neighbourhood, and phragmites are scattered widely in this area, I was keenly interested.

The species of phragmites (pronounced frag-mite-eez) that is causing so much concern is the European common reed. Though it is closely related to a native variety of phragmites, the European version has no natural controls in North America and quickly multiplies into a dense monoculture.

Dr. Gilbert has been researching phragmites and working in phragmites control efforts for the past 10 years. She spoke at the Purple Woods Conservation Area this week, in an event sponsored by Scugog Environmental Advisory Council in partnership with Central Lake Ontario Conservation, Kawartha Conservation, North Durham Nature, Scugog Lake Stewards and Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Gilbert explained that the European common reed is awesomely prolific because nearly every part of the plant will sprout and grow if dropped in wet soil.

It produces a large seed head, and the seeds can be carried for kilometers by the wind – but that’s just one of its strategies for dispersal. Its rhizomes shoot out for many feet in every direction. And if a live stalk is knocked down, it will send up new shoots all along its length.

Dispersal methods of phragmites. (From Invasive Phragmites – Best Management Practices in Ontario)

This explains why phragmites have spread so widely along highways and rural roads. Heavy equipment used in road construction and maintenance, particularly tracked machinery, carries mud from one site to another. If pieces of phragmites are carried in that mud, and it doesn’t completely dry before being dropped in a new location, a new outbreak of the reed will soon be growing.

Spread of phragmites in the Great Lakes area. (From Invasive Phragmites – Best Management Practices in Ontario)

Habitat destruction

Phragmites take over a location so rapidly because they suck up nutrients and water faster than nearly all competitor plants, and because they are allelopathic – their roots secrete chemicals which are toxic to other plants.

Native insect species have not evolved to feed on phragmites – and that means insect-eating birds don’t find food in a phragmites monoculture. Muskrats don’t like phragmites, so they don’t build their characteristic mounds, surrounded by a bit of open water, within phragmites-dominated marshes. Birds will nest right around the edges of phragmites stands, but not very far within – the stands are too dense. And since a fully-developed phragmites monoculture can have 200 stalks per square meter, the growth is so dense that turtles trying to fight their way through are sometimes trapped, succumbing to starvation.

In short, the entire food chain from bottom to top is disrupted when phragmites take over a wetland.

A tale of two marshes

This ecological horror story is of more than passing local concern. There are two important coastal wetlands in my neighbourhood. In one of them – Westside Marsh – there are already major stands of phragmites all along the west side.

Phragmites are established all along the west edge of Westside Marsh, next to the St. Marys Cement quarry. Photo from Nov 2015.

The other local marsh, Bowmanville Marsh, appears to be phrag-free so far – but there are stands of phragmites barely 100 meters away.

This stand of phragmites is along West Beach Road, just north of Bowmanville Marsh.

 

A stand of phragmites on the south side of Hwy 401, near the Liberty Street exit, extends to within a few meters of Soper Creek. This creek flows south and joins Bowmanville Marsh.

 

A long and difficult battle

The good news is that phragmites infestations can be controlled. The bad news is that the process is labour-intensive, it sometimes requires specialized equipment, efforts need to be repeated at least two or three years in a row, and it is almost impossible to get large stands of phragmites knocked back without application of concentrated glyphosate.

Dr. Gilbert described her own gradual conversion to advocating the use of glyphosate – as a wetland ecologist, her first reaction was to recoil at the thought of using herbicides around wetlands – and her frustration that the glyphosate formulations used to great success in phragmites-control programs in the US are not usually available or permitted in Canada.

In our local area, Diana Shermet of Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA) confirmed that to date, there have been no phragmites-control programs in Westside Marsh or Bowmanville Marsh. High cost is a major barrier, though CLOCA has received funding and carried out phragmites-control programs in a few areas in Durham region.

As Gilbert noted, successful phragmites-control efforts are usually co-ordinated between several agencies. It does little good to get phragmites out of a marsh if there are stands a few meters away along roadsides. And it does little good to get phragmites out of a ditch along a municipal road, if there are stands along a regional or provincial highway nearby.

The Ontario Phragmites Working Group is providing information and expertise to agencies across the province, and we certainly hope that the provincial government, Durham Region, Municipality of Clarington and CLOCA will find a way to take up this effort in the near future.

Top photo: a stand of phragmites in Westside Marsh, photographed in April 2017. (Click here for larger version)