Collapse: Energy Driven. Collapse is a scary word and sparks visions of something sudden and dramatic. Houses of cards collapse. Condos in Miami collapse. Civilizations collapse. All civilizations collapse eventually. All human lives face collapse. But not all things that collapse crumble in the same way or at the same rate in different places at the same time. I think collapse is not a precise enough teerm especially when we use it in the context of something as complex as an economy or a civilization. In this paper I may try out other words to illustrate the process of something ending, or breaking down. Engineering understands that structures for example are designed to last a certain period of time, to have a lifespan. Certain design features can be incorporated to lengthen or shorten such a lifespan like higher quality materials or redundancy. Using metaphors that apply to something as complex as a civilization or an economy which has millions of components like feedback loops and people interacting is inherently squishy and difficult to quantify. But perhaps it can be done, even scientifically and mathematically.
Peter Turchin, a professor at UConn has contributed mightily to what happens when civilizations collapse. His approach follows the cyclical theory of history which doesn’t have universal acceptance but his approach is unique in trying to quantify the factors using an assembled database called Seshat. The embedded link explains his methodology. I found his book and his current work very persuasive and will try to incorporate his theory into this paper. There are many factors that will be driving the collapse of this technoindustrial “machine” this century and I hope to lay out these factors in simple terms, simple enough for myself and the reader to grasp. The single most overriding driver of this collapse will be overshoot by humanity of the carrying capacity of the planet. William R Catton published a book of that title in 1982 which I have alluded to and sadly it was published by the University of Illinois Press as a textbook which is why it has been missed by the reading public. Thankfully it is still in print and I consider it one of the three most influential books on this subject of collapse I have ever read. It is exceedingly readable. The other two are Limits to Growth by Meadows et al and The collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter and I will come back again and again referring to these milestone publishing icons.
The proximate driver in this collapse will be the decline and cheap availability of fossil energy. This might be also stated as “cause in fact” causation. These are legal terms but the result to society’s economy will be the same. Cheap fossil energy has allowed the huge expansion of this industrial civilization generating wealth, improving living standards, expanding public health with technological miracles of computation and communication generating a lifestyle of rising expectations in an exponentially increasing human population. This is progress which has increased our standard of living’ It has also generated a huge variety of occupations that consume energy and make nothing. But this progress has downsides. World population is increasing 80 million births a year and declining energy resources means declining energy availability per capita. Energy per capita correlates almost perfectly with GDP and is also closely tied to the aforementioned expansion of civilization. progress and “growth” of the economy. But In fact energy per capita has been falling for the past 5 years or so and this trend will continue if for no other reason than world population will continue to increase 80 million a year for the foreseeable future. Are we talking about fossil energy per capita or just energy per capita? It matters not how the energy is produced whether from a windmill or from burning coal when you are computing the numbers but it matters a great deal on how that energy is used. Non fossil energy typically gets delivered directly as electricity which is fine for urban living but useless for heavy manufacturing like steel making, mining, cement or heavy transportation uses like trucking or flying. Thus the type of work powered by energy depends very much upon the character of the energy. Since electricity is a carrier of energy and not an energy source like oil, coal or gas it cannot be readily stored. It is less than a fifth(19%) of the global delivered energy mix and most electricity is produced from fossil energy emission producing sources. One important fact almost never mentioned is that the generation of electricity from burning fossil energy is exceedingly inefficient. Most coal plants have efficiency well below 40%. The most efficient coal plant I was able to find was the newer Turk plant in Arkansas and it is just at 40%. Only the newer combined cycle gas plants have efficiencies between 50 and 60%. The old open cycle ones were well below 40%. The major reason they are so low is that they boil water to produce steam just like a nuclear plant. Nuclear plants are even less efficient than gas or coal plants, around 30-33%., but that is so called “thermal” efficiency. If you look at how much theoretical energy is contained within a kilogram of uranium and how much energy ends up as electricity, it is far less. Think of all those water cooled pools of “spent” fuel. They are still hot which means they are still full of energy that will never be utilized. Efficiency of steam driven turbines increases if you increase the temperature and pressure of the steam but at some point you can start blowing up boilers like what happened on the Mississippi river steamboats in the 19th century. . If steam in boilers are such lousy inefficient ways to power a civilization, maybe there are better ways like developing energy from renewable sources. Maybe technology will save us.