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GROWTH: From Microorganisms to Megacities

GROWTH: From Microorganisms to Megacities

Vaclav Smil’s latest book explores growth in nature and society. It examines the rules and patterns of growth in four key domains, those of the living world; human energy consumption; human artifacts; and human populations, societies and economies. The author is a passionate advocate of quantitative analysis, and thus Growth is filled with numbers, graphs and mathematical notation. Yet it’s written to be easily understood by non-mathematicians, making brilliant but accessible use of statistics to illustrate salient features of growth in all its terrestrial forms (the book’s scope is limited to Earth). In short, Growth is a compelling read for statisticians and non-statisticians alike.

A favorite author of Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and a Foreign Policy magazine Top 100 Global Thinker, Smil is known for his multidisciplinary approach, energy-related expertise and penchant for packing his many books with all manner of fascinating facts. Growth‘s chapter on the biological realm supplies as fine a sampling of this latter propensity as can be found. Did you know that average dinosaur body volumes declined at the beginning of the final period of the Mesozoic era but then made a near-comeback to their previous highs by the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction? You will after reading this book–and if you’re as much of a nerd as I am, you’ll relish this and innumerable other scientific tidbits. You’ll also be awed by the 100-page bibliography and the fact that scarcely a sentence goes by without some bit of quantitative analysis or scholarly citation.

A Novel

Prehistoric trivia aside, Smil’s chapter on the living world rightly focuses on those life forms most necessary to humanity’s survival and the functioning of the biosphere. These include, of course, modern-day trees and forests, microorganisms, agricultural crops and animals.

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Kenneth S. Deffeyes’ HUBBERT’S PEAK: The Impending World Oil Shortage

This is the first of three books that the late geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes, who passed away a year ago this week, wrote about the coming global oil crisis. The goal of these books is to provide readers a rudimentary understanding of oil, where it came from and what’s involved in finding and producing it, in order to raise awareness about the peril we face as oil depletes. All three books deftly achieve this aim courtesy of Deffeyes’ expertise, his gift for communicating science information and his great wit.

Part of what makes the books so accessible is that they’re almost as much autobiographies as textbooks, allowing us to get to know their author personally. Chapter one of Hubbert’s Peak tells of how Deffeyes’ career began at the prestigious Shell Oil research lab in Houston, Texas, in 1958. An oilman through and through, he felt at home in the field; but while at Shell, he met someone whose research persuaded him that the U.S. oil industry didn’t have long to live. The person in question was Marion King Hubbert, a preeminent geoscientist who today is best known for his theory of peak oil. In 1956 Hubbert accurately predicted that U.S. conventional oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970, then begin an irreversible decline. Based on Hubbert’s numbers, Deffeyes concluded that the U.S. oil industry would shrink drastically in coming decades.

A Novel

So, in the late 1960s, he decided to leave the oil business and become a geology professor at Princeton University. In 1997, after teaching there for 30 years, he retired, became an emeritus professor and commenced writing his books about oil. By that time, Hubbert, who had become a close friend of Deffeyes’, had long since passed away.

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Matthieu Auzanneau’s: OIL, POWER, AND WAR: A Dark History

In Oil, Power, and War, French journalist Matthieu Auzanneau presents a comprehensive, provocative history of humankind’s relationship with oil. His account takes us from the first references to oil in ancient literature and scripture, to its current status as the lifeblood of the industrial economy, to its inevitable future demise as a usable energy source for our society. The book was first published in France in 2015 as Or noir (meaning “black gold”). This new edition is a nicely rendered English translation that extends the original narrative to the present.

The book uses the four seasons of the year as a metaphor for the life cycle of the modern oil era. The first season, spring, was preceded by a centuries-long “germination” in which all the factors that led to our current, utter reliance on fossil fuel slowly fell into place. For most of this time humankind’s use of oil remained small-scale, but it launched into an ever-upward spiral with the development of the first commercial oil wells during the late 1850s. Spring began in 1945, when America’s post-World War II economic boom propelled world oil consumption to meteoric new heights. Summer saw America lose her status as the world’s oil production powerhouse and become dependent on overseas oil. Today we’re 20 years into autumn, a season defined by the peaking of global oil extraction. We’re woefully unprepared for the winter we face, in which oil will begin its irreversible decline.

A Novel

The learning curve involved in humankind’s exploitation of oil was especially precipitous in the beginning. Auzanneau describes how those who produced the first oilfields did so at what today would be considered a reckless pace, not yet understanding that extracting the oil too quickly damages the reservoir, greatly reducing how much oil can ultimately be recovered.

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Frank Kaminski reviews two peak oil documentaries from 2008

Frank Kaminski reviews two peak oil documentaries from 2008

BLIND SPOT: Peak Oil and the Coming Global Crisis

A Documentary Directed, Written, Photographed, and Edited by Adolfo Doring–1 hour, 26 minutes

and FUEL

A Documentary Directed and Narrated by Josh Tickell–1 hour, 52 minutes

These two documentaries on the world oil crisis came out in 2008, a time of growing concern over humankind’s energy future. In the decade since then, public interest in the issue has waned, but the relevance of these films hasn’t–they remain valuable, engaging portraits of the quandary we face at the end of the oil age. Blind Spot provides the proverbial 30,000-foot view of our situation, whereas Fuel gives a personal, on-the-ground account of one man’s activist crusade. Both films are far from perfect. One fails to adequately address how we should respond to our crisis, while the other is unrealistically optimistic about the responses it suggests. Still, both are important films, and they’re all the more compelling when viewed together, given their disparate but complementary perspectives.

A Documentary

Blind Spot is uncompromising about the realities we face as we leave the era of cheap, abundant oil behind. A formidable cast of geoscientists, physicists, environmental analysts, inventors and other experts details the essence of our plight. Our modern world, which requires ever-increasing quantities of easily obtainable oil, faces a future of ever-dwindling supply. Because oil is finite and the rate of new oil discoveries has been dropping since the early 1960s, logic and mathematics dictate that its production will eventually reach an all-time high, followed by permanent decline. The numbers indicate that the point of peak production, a phenomenon called “peak oil,” is imminent. And, sadly, alternative energy sources, for all the hype they’ve generated, are powerless to save us. They are nowhere near as energy-dense as oil, and we’ve already waited too long to invest meaningfully in them.

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Book Review: Energy Return on Investment by Charles A. S. Hall

Book Review: Energy Return on Investment by Charles A. S. Hall

ENERGY RETURN ON INVESTMENT: A Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics, and Sustainability

In Energy Return on Investment, systems ecologist Charles A. S. Hall argues that to truly understand most investments, one must view them in terms of energy. This is perhaps most obvious when considering the physical survival of wild animals and human hunter-gatherers. In both these instances, the food obtained through foraging or hunting must yield more energy than was required to procure it, or starvation ensues. Another way of understanding this is by applying the concept of energy return on investment (EROI). As with the more familiar metric of return on investment (ROI), EROI is a ratio of profit–in this case, energy profit–to resources expended. It is calculated by dividing the amount of energy obtained in the course of a given activity by the resources that went into recovering that energy. A positive EROI is one above the break-even point, whereas a negative EROI is one that fails to break even.

This principle extends beyond the individual sphere to encompass entire human societies. Like the lone animal or hunter-gatherer of the previous example, a civilization must maintain a positive energy balance to survive. Most ultimately fail to do so, as evidenced by the long line of failed past civilizations. Consider the ancient Easter Islanders, whose downfall was described so well in geographer Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond recounts how the Easter Islanders relied heavily on fish, and to catch the fish they needed wooden boats. They were depleting their wood supply faster than it could regenerate, and eventually their efforts to obtain more wood no longer yielded positive energy returns in the form of food. Now fast forward to our time and reflect on what’s happened with the EROI of our primary energy source. The oil that powers modernity once came out of the ground easily, but it now requires herculean investments of both money and energy (think offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling) to obtain.

A Political Novel

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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