[p2p-research] Theory that Civilization is a Heat Engine

Ryan rlanham1963 at gmail.com
Mon Nov 30 01:46:36 CET 2009

  Sent to you by Ryan via Google Reader: Theory that Civilization is a
Heat Engine via Next Big Future by noreply at blogger.com (bw) on 11/29/09
A University of Utah scientist (Tim Garrett, an associate professor of
atmospheric sciences) argues that rising carbon dioxide emissions - the
major cause of global warming - cannot be stabilized unless the world's
economy collapses or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear
power plant each day.

"Fundamentally, I believe the system is deterministic," says
Garrett. "Changes in population and standard of living are only a
function of the current energy efficiency. That leaves only switching
to a non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power source as an available option."

"The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce
them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate
about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear
power plant per day."

Garrett's study was panned by some economists and rejected by several
journals before acceptance by Climatic Change, a journal edited by
renowned Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider. The
study will be published online this week.

The study - which is based on the concept that physics can be used to
characterize the evolution of civilization - indicates:

* Energy conservation or efficiency doesn't really save energy, but
instead spurs economic growth and accelerated energy consumption.

* Throughout history, a simple physical "constant" - an unchanging
mathematical value - links global energy use to the world's accumulated
economic productivity, adjusted for inflation. So it isn't necessary to
consider population growth and standard of living in predicting
society's future energy consumption and resulting carbon dioxide

* "Stabilization of carbon dioxide emissions at current rates will
require approximately 300 gigawatts of new non-carbon-dioxide-emitting
power production capacity annually - approximately one new nuclear
power plant (or equivalent) per day," Garrett says. "Physically, there
are no other options without killing the economy."

Garrett treats civilization like a "heat engine" that "consumes energy
and does 'work' in the form of economic production, which then spurs it
to consume more energy," he says.

"If society consumed no energy, civilization would be worthless," he
adds. "It is only by consuming energy that civilization is able to
maintain the activities that give it economic value. This means that if
we ever start to run out of energy, then the value of civilization is
going to fall and even collapse absent discovery of new energy sources."

Garrett says his study's key finding "is that accumulated economic
production over the course of history has been tied to the rate of
energy consumption at a global level through a constant factor."

That "constant" is 9.7 (plus or minus 0.3) milliwatts per
inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar. So if you look at economic and energy
production at any specific time in history, "each inflation-adjusted
1990 dollar would be supported by 9.7 milliwatts of primary energy
consumption," Garrett says.

Garrett tested his theory and found this constant relationship between
energy use and economic production at any given time by using United
Nations statistics for global GDP (gross domestic product), U.S.
Department of Energy data on global energy consumption during
1970-2005, and previous studies that estimated global economic
production as long as 2,000 years ago. Then he investigated the
implications for carbon dioxide emissions.

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