25 December 2013

Pilgrim's Progress

In one of my previous cubehomes, I had a Post-it note with the kilocalorie measure of known chemical sources. At the top of the list was gasoline; IIRC, ethanol was next at about half as much. Over the years, I've prattled on about this fact. The whole notion of progress boils down to increases in energy consumption per capita (mean or median, take your pick). Given both gasoline's energy density and portability, there is no transformational alternative energy source, short of Mr. Fusion, which doesn't demand a transformation of society's structure. You can look it up: GM bought up electric railway systems (with a vengeance post WWII) in cities and towns, and put in buses. The rationale (not that GM had any specific interest at stake, of course) was that buses could be sent on diverse routes as populations shifted, and needs changed. Ignored by such argument was the fact that populations huddled around tram lines, not the other way round. Suburbia has done quite the same with ring and radial limited access motorways in cities. I lived in, and watched, the transformation of Washington, DC with respect to both rail and highway creation. If you build it, they will come.

Put more bluntly: all of the other alternatives require socialized usage of said energy source. It's the divisibility and portability of gasoline that makes it transformational relative to the socialist structures of centralized energy sources. Chemical batteries haven't (and can't, by my ancient understanding of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics) reached such a density. As populations move (or forcefully relocated) to cities, the lure of gasoline diminishes. As the farmersonly.com ad says, "city folks just don't get it". May be true, but sodbusters in their shitkickers are a rapidly shrinking minority; intent on running the country their way, of course. Because city folks just don't get it. We out here in God's country need our Bible, Guns, and Meth.

And, lo and behold, for the last couple of weeks, the socially responsible folks at Exxon/Mobil have been running a PSA (no, I don't find a YouTube version listed, so you'll just have to watch football, and such, to see it) extolling this density advantage: a gallon of gasoline will run your smartphone for 3,000 days. Gasoline uber alles!!

But, what got me to type all this out was the result of looking into the collapse of the USSR. And this toddle through the innterTubes led me to this article, which I've not gotten all the way through, so there's some chance that the following quote will end up being contradicted later. Even so, I'll take the chance:
Yes, labor, capital and technological innovation are important inputs into economic growth, but what Cleveland et. al. (1984), Cleveland et. al. (2000), Smil (1991, 1994, 2005) and Reynolds (2002) make so clear is that energy is a vital ingredient to growth and technology. If you take away energy, the labor, the capital and the technology inputs cannot do a thing. As one physicist friend said to me once, "I bet (those economists) can't even change a tire."

I do believe that's the first time I've seen some pundit make the connection.

No comments: