I recently had the opportunity to see an advanced screening of the film The Age of Consequences. The film is based on a report, of the same name, that was released by CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Using voice overs, interviews, striking visuals and news footage the message is clear: the world is facing serious challenges.
By interviewing mainly retired US armed forces personnel, the film aims to avoid audiences dismissing the climate change issue as a left-wing only concern. I appreciate that the film does not frame the climate change issue as a distant problem, somewhere in the future, but makes it a tangible event in the present. The Age of Consequences is already here.
Judging by the frequent sighs from the audience, this news made people feel very despondent. To counter this collective depression, the film has a scene towards the end that is almost a cliché for films of this nature – sweeping helicopter shots of rows of wind turbines and fields of solar panels. A voice-over states how this is a crisis but also an opportunity.
The film ends, the lights are switched on again, a few people check their phones to see if they missed any important messages. The seriousness of the situation has been firmly impressed on the audience, but there is no clear guidance as to what they should do next.
This is probably one of the biggest flaws of this film and others like it. The problem is clearly outlined along with the long term consequences, but the roadmap of how to navigate away from the crisis doesn’t seem to have been created yet.
Maybe once this film has its mainstream release it can galvanize action on a large scale. Until then, all we can do is try and minimise our own contribution to the problem and sigh for the scale of our predicament.
I’m not sure if there are any readers here who are fans of speculative fiction dealing with peak-oil, but if there are I can heartily recommend the Inter States series by Ralph Meima. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book Fossil Nation and I am waiting in anticipation for the release of the second book in the series. Here is an idea of what to expect…
A historic migration begins, triggered by Hurricane Rhiannon but accelerated by deeper currents. With winter approaching, hundreds of thousands take to the road in search of safety, potable water, reliable sources of food, and shelter. Their numbers overwhelm infrastructure and governments, roiling politics and changing the demographic character of regions forever.
With the 2040 election only days away, events whip from one surprise to another. A dispute flares around disaster relief offered by China and the European Union. Supporters and opponents dig in along partisan lines. The President is held in contempt, and arrested by a council of national unity. Despite an initial spirit of cooperation, multiple competing claims to federal executive authority arise, precipitating a constitutional crisis. Oligarchs see threats and opportunities in the emerging disorder, and act to protect their interests.
Carried along in the migration are the Trudeau-Kendeil and Daniels families. They have banded together for a harrowing journey of many days from Washington, D.C. to the homes of charitable relatives in New England, in search of the security a family needs in these lean times. Their route takes them through communities coping in diverse ways with economic hardship, an unstable climate, and the swelling numbers of migrants.
A colleague from Jack Trudeau’s past appears with an explanation of the unraveling around them. Grounded in energy science, his letter addresses the federal government’s dysfunction in the face of the crisis, and the new, more assertive role that state governments are quickly assuming. Prepare for abrupt, discontinuous change, he warns.
Challenges multiply as the families travel north. Election Day arrives while they are still on the road. Voter turnout is low among populations side-tracked by the storm and migration. Then, tragedy strikes in the families’ midst, overwhelming plans and driving home a harsh lesson about options and consequences in a world riven by competing realities and relentless resource scarcity.
How is energy measured? There are various units energy is measured in but they all fall into two categories when applied to energy consumption. The units either describe the total energy used to achieve something or the energy use per unit of time. Lets consider speed and distance. When I travel home in my car I might need to travel 10km. To keep to the speed limit I might need to travel no faster than 60km/h.
The 10km I need to travel is the total distance I need to travel in order to achieve my goal of getting home. The 60km per hour that I am traveling describes the rate of movement per hour.
These two units are related but they are not the same thing. With the information I can calculate that if my speed does not change it will take me 10 minutes to get home. If you knew how long you traveled and the speed you could determine how far you moved.
Lets translate this to energy. The unit that energy is measured in is the joule. One joule is roughly the energy required to lift a small apple 1m off the ground. This is not a scientific definition but makes for a good illustration. Joule is our distance – the total amount of energy required to do something without any consideration for time.
What would be the speed equivalent? Measuring the rate of change of energy is called power. It is measured in the unit watt. Watt is the same as joule per second. So if you had a basket of small apples and were picking them up one by one, and one per second, the power involved would be 1 watt.
So in the same way as the speed/distance example energy/power and joule/watt are related but they are not the same thing. What gets confusing is that the majority of energy measurements are denoted in watt-hours. This is the same as giving distance in the unit of km/h.h or kilometer per hour hours. These are all the different ways of denoting the same thing. So when people talk about watt-hours remember that they are actually taking about joule, the unit of energy measurement.
Example: If I have a toaster rated at 700W and it takes 2 minutes to toast my bread I can determine that running the toaster for 2 minutes requires 84 000 joules of energy.
It is due to the fact the numbers get big so quickly that a different unit was devised but that still describes the same thing. The standard unit for describing electrical energy consumed is watt-hour or kilowatt-hour (a thousand watt-hours). This is the same as 3.6MJ or 3 600 000 joule.
What is energy? In essence energy is the ability to do work. It is the thing you need to do something useful. The picture above illustrates this principle. If you have a box filled with a random assortment of coins it will take energy to sort them and neatly stack them on top of each other.
There are two main laws that govern energy. The first law states that Energy cannot be created or destroyed but it can changed from one type to another.
The second law states that “in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state.”
These laws sound complicated but they basically encapsulate that you can’t get energy for free (First law) and that in a closed system energy moves from being concentrated to being dispersed (Second law). The second law also describes another aspect known as entropy (chaos, disorder), and says that entropy will increase over time in a closed system.
To illustrate. A mug of heated tea is standing on a desk. After a few hours the tea is colder and the desk below the mug is a little bit warmer. The mug cooling down has to transfer its heat somewhere (First law) – this heat is transferred to the surrounding air and the desktop. The heat moving from the tea and the mug to the surroundings illustrate the Second law. The heat energy moves from being concentrated in the water to being dispersed in the water, mug, air and desk.
So energy is everywhere and it is more useful to us if it is concentrated than when it is dispersed. Also these laws are laws – so when somebody talks about free energy or things sucking energy from their surroundings to heat up, a mistake is usually being made or something is not being considered. Sadly you cannot get something for nothing.
There is this strange quirk regarding humans, they have an issue with limits. People don’t like having limits. They don’t want to die, they don’t to want keep to a certain speed on the roads, they don’t want to be told they cannot study neurosurgery because they don’t qualify. How many movies glorify someone overcoming limits and limitations – inspiring all of us to reach higher and further.
I need to highlight here that there are good limits and bad limits. Limiting the use of lead in children’s toys is an example of a good limit, limiting political positions to only men is a bad limit. By their nature limits restrict some aspect of something and accordingly some cost is required. If you mandate lead free paint in toys they might be more expensive. If you set speed limits it takes longer to travel.
I want to give an example that it is not always a good idea to live just within limits. If you receive a credit card with a $1000 limit, you can view this amount as the upper limit to your spending and then you will constantly be in debt. Somehow people assume that since the bank assigned them this limit it is perfectly fine for them to constantly sit with this amount of debt to their name. And yet this limit just denotes the maximum amount of debt you are allowed to accrue. If you were to limit your debt to $100 you would have a much more manageable amount of debt and you would have some reserves left for emergencies.
This trade-off has many aspects, efficiency vs. resiliency, short term vs. long term, sufficiency vs. maximization. I would like to propose here that in most cases it is better to stay as far away from the limits as possible since this grants the greatest amount of freedom. This is an idea that is applicable to various scales in life. From the innocuous example of leaving room for dessert after a meal to overpopulation or financial management.
This is a lesson that I only learned recently but it is a valuable one. Limits are real and should not always be viewed as a barrier but rather as a safety rail. The further you are from limits the more flexibility you have.