Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Chick In The Egg

                                                                                                written 5 January 2019
                                                                                                published 12 January 2019

            A chicken embryo begins to grow from a spot on the yolk which provides nutrients and energy within the security of the shell.  The growing chick fills the space within the shell, living off the yolk, eventually exhausting both.  The resolution to this apparently dire situation is for the chick to hatch into the larger world and continue to grow.
            For hundreds of thousands of years humanity has been growing within the secure protection of the Earth's biosphere.  We lived off the bounty provided annually by other life forms.  The use of fire provided access to stored energy, first, the energy stored in wood, then, fossil fuels, which has provided us with an incredible amount of stored solar energy.
            More than 6,000 years ago, when the world population was less than 10 million, the Chinese began burning coal for heating and industrial uses.  Population doubled ever thousand years until 1000BC, and then doubled every 500 years, reaching 750 million in the mid 1700's when the Industrial Revolution began.  Fueled by coal, which is twice as energy dense as wood, food production, water quality, and health care increased, extended life spans and allowed rapid population growth.  In one century population increased 60% to 1.2 billion.
            Oil was first developed on an industrial scale in the 1840's.  The first wells in larger reserves literally shot out of the ground in powerful geysers.  One and a half times as energy dense as coal, oil was more versatile, and extremely profitable.  This allowed even more rapid expansion and growth, similar to the yolk nourishing the chicken embryo.  
            The years from 1900 to 1950 saw global oil production increase by 3800%, from 275 thousand barrels/day to 10.4 million barrels/day, and humanity grew to 2.6 billion.  In 20 more years, 1970 global oil production reached 48 million barrels/day, an additional 460% increase, and population jumped 40% to 3.7 billion.  
            Oil, however, is a finite resource, found in limited locations.  As fields matured, the initial gushers failed, requiring pumping, and then water injection, to extract the remaining oil.  Despite these efforts, production eventually peaks and declines.  To replace depleted production, and satisfy increasing demand, a global exploration for new reserves scoured the planet.  By the 1960's the volume of new discoveries peaked, and only modest reserves remain to be found.  Since 1970, per capita oil consumption has held steady, as oil production barely kept pace with population growth, each doubling to today's values of 7.6 billion people consuming 98 million barrels/day.  
            Conventional oil, found on land or a shallow continental shelf, peaked in 1971 for United States domestic production and around 2005 for global production. To satisfy demand, unconventional sources, such as deep-ocean fields, fracking, and tar sands, were developed, which are expensive and energetically less efficient.  The economy runs on the surplus energy left after expending the energy required to access the energy resource.  100 barrels of oil from early conventional fields required the energy of 1 barrel to access.  To provide the same energy by fracking requires the energy of 25 barrels, and tar sands requires 50 barrels.
            Oil has fueled an amazing expansion of humanity, but we are now at the point of the chick about to exhaust the energy that allowed it to flourish so far. We know what happens when the chick hatches, but we haven't experienced what the "hatching" of humanity will look like.  Perhaps there is a critical mass phenomenon, which requires unprecedented densities.  
            There are almost as many people alive as there are neurons in a human brain. That's over 11 million tons of cerebral cortex, interacting in electromagnetic resonance and globally connected.  There are more educated women and more post-menopausal women, alive now than ever before, representing an unprecedented wisdom and understanding.  There is more appreciation of democracy, and the ideal of equality of all people.  The spiritual teachings of the ages are no longer secret, but available to everyone.  Perhaps none of this is significant, but we do know that the way we have been living is no longer sustainable, and must soon come to an end.  For the chick, the choice is to hatch, or die.  We seem to be facing the same options.