Energy and adaption

Last week we have explored the basics of complex adaptive systems. Now let’s take a look under the hood and find out what role(s) energy has to play in such a system and see what are the options for adoption in light of the changes ahead.

What is energy?

In my previous post I’ve showed you how complex systems form themselves around the use of energy — but what it is actually? It is very hard to define, in fact it is better understood through the forms it takes: it is the heat and light from the sun, the power generated by our engines, the movement of parts, machines, cars; the work it performs. It is all around us and in us: in our every breath, in the warmth of our skin, in the strength of our muscles. Without it there is no heat, movement or light. No work could be done. It is thus the goal of every system to use — or control the use — of it the most: the more you have or control the bigger, stronger, powerful and ultimately more successful you will become.

The first and second law

The workings of energy are so universal across the known universe (the solar system included) that it can be formulated in two simple laws:

#1 Energy cannot be created or destroyed

#2 As energy is transformed, more and more of it is wasted

This means that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant, it merely shifts forms — but by doing so it increasingly gets degraded into its ultimate form: waste heat. In this final form its capacity for work tends towards zero — thus it becomes useless to any system as a source of power.

Can we condense energy?

If we want to make more use of energy we can and in some applications we must concentrate it, but pointing to the 2. law of thermodynamics above, only at the cost of even more energy (and thus the production of even more waste heat). Take uranium for example: it is a very concentrated fuel, a few kilograms of it can power entire towns for years. In fact, all U-235 has been created in massive stars (much bigger than our Sun) with a tremendous amount of “waste” heat in the process (if you look at the process only from uranium’s perspective only). A few billion years later it got mined on a planet (by burning fossil fuels into waste heat), then refined and enriched by using a lot of electricity (which is converted energy coming from the burning of fossil fuels and thus dissipated as waste heat in the end too). A lot of fuss to produce a little uranium 235 which is then used to boil water and run a steam engine.

Maximum power

As we have seen in the examples above the use of energy is really a one way street: most of the time systems go ahead burning it, but if they want to reverse the process there is a huge price to pay. As I indicated above complex systems try to burn all energy they can, the fastest way they can (as much as constraints allow) in order to be the first to tap the next unit of energy. If a system were to lag behind in this competition for energy, there would be little left for it. This is called the maximum power principle.

The cost of energy

This quickly leads us to the cost of getting energy — but not in terms of money (this concept of paper wealth is useless when dealing with the law of physics). Rather, what is more important for complex dissipative structures (from lions to human civilizations), is how much energy do they need to spend to get the next dose of energy? Does it worth for a lion to run (and thus spend a lot of energy) in order to catch a mouse? Certainly not. So how do we calculate if an effort to get energy worth the energy invested?

Chart on EROEI based on “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society”
by: Charles A.S.Hall, Jessica G.Lambert, Stephen B.Balogh

Side effects to using energy

Besides producing waste heat, the use of energy has another side effect: pollution. In our world today this mainly translates to CO2, but it doesn’t stop there. Whenever energy is used to mine minerals, melt steel, manufacture goods etc. additional pollution is created. When you turn energy off, all of this goes away immediately (remember the first wave of COVID-lockdowns in 2020?). No matter what type of energy is being used: it will cause unintended harm anyway. Nuclear? Radioactive waste. Electricity? Mining mountains of metals leaving acid-lakes of waste behind. As long as our civilization uses such high amounts of energy (over 170,000 TWh per year) the pollution problem will not go away, only shift forms.

Infrastructure

Every complex adaptive system has it’s internal infrastructure carrying energy to every part of it and removing waste products (the side effect of energy use). Take a modern city for example: a network of roads and transmission lines provide it with the energy it needs (both for humans and their machines), while a sewage system together with the road network takes care of removing its waste products. Just like in any living organism.

Shrinking surplus energy

Growth of these networks didn’t stop in the 1950’s though: it continued, and continues still to this day. Due to this expansion the maintenance and repair of this huge infrastructure requires an ever-expanding budget of energy and raw materials — on an exponential scale (remember 3–4% annual GDP and the corresponding infrastructure growth results in a doubling of every 20 years). As the available net energy starts to decline (due to worse and worse EROEI and gradual depletion) network maintenance will put an additional, exponential pressure on surplus energy, making it disappear faster than expected (see the chart below). The only “option” to stave this off for a few more years is to neglect infrastructure repair. My bet is that governments will focus on shiny new projects instead of maintenance to retain an illusion of growth, while letting the countryside slip back to the early decades of the 20th century.

Shrinking surplus energy: the energy available for economic activities (represented by green bars) is under increasing pressure. This is partly due to exponentially worsening EROEI and resource depletion (both for fossil fuels and rare earth metals for renewables) — and on the other hand due to the exponential growth in maintenance costs for the infrastructure. Note: the height of the bars and curvature of these trends are purely illustrative (together with the end date). The purpose here is to show that these converging trends quite possibly intersect still within the lifetime of people living today. Considering the risks involved this topic would well deserve a decent research (if it hasn’t been done yet).

A modelling example

In order to illustrate these points let me share with you a study made on quantifying and calculating the workings of the human enterprise; reaching conclusions purely from a mathematical modelling of our behavior. It’s titled: Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis by Timothy J. Garrett. How the entire world economy was managed to put into a simple physical model really struck me with an awe of wonder:

Schematic for the thermodynamics of an open system. Image from the study: Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis by Timothy J. Garrett

Adaption – new energy resources

Wait, there must be something we can do! If renewables do not cut it, then Hydrogen will do… or Thorium… if not, then Fusion! Well, let’s see if we can adapt to (or even turn back) a decline in net energy by implementing these technologies.

Biomass and an evolutionary response

Mineral resources can not be an answer to a problem caused by their depletion. There is no use in replacing a finite and waning resource with another one at the cost of increasing energy use and environmental damage. Can we run ahead of mineral depletion and start converting our economy to a biomass powered one? (Biomass is wood, dung, hay, charcoal etc. — I purposefully did not mention biodiesel or ethanol, because of their ultra-low EROEI and their use of valuable food producing land.)

A critique of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.