Putting the life back in science fiction

American Brontosaur

I haven’t posted recently, because I’ve been busy with a book and life throwing things at me. Anyway, as part of research for the book (which explores the idea of what the deep future looks like if severe climate change comes to past and humans don’t go extinct), I wanted to find out how much energy the average American currently uses. So I did the usual Google Search, and tripped over Cecil Adams’ 2011 Straight Dope column about whether Americans use more energy than a blue whale (which was asserted in a 2009 New York Times article). He (actually his brainy assistant Una) cranked the calculation and came up with the basic answer of “no.” Just for thoroughness’ sake, I decided to replicate part of it.

It turns out that, in 2012 (according to <a href=”https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/energy.html”>LLNL</a&gt;), the US used 9.71 quadrillion BTUs of energy (quads), of which 4.17 quads were actually used for something and 5.56 quads were lost in the system. As of December 31, 2012, there were 312.8 million people in the US. Grinding the numbers out, converting BTUs per year into watts and assuming that the population was constant throughout 2012, I got that the US generated about 10,378 watts per person, of which about 4,457 watts was used, 5,943 watts were wasted.

So Cecil (actually Una) was basically right in saying that Americans used about 11 kilowatts of energy per capita per year. According to what they found in their research, a hundred ton blue whale used about 65 kilowatts. So if this mythical average American isn’t consuming the energetic equivalent of a 100 ton blue whale, then, we’re sort of vaguely equivalent to a 15 to 20 ton blue whale (they exist too–they’re called calves).

While I was wallowing around, try to find the appropriate whale equivalent for this average American, it dawned on me that there’s a whole other class of critters that large: sauropod dinosaurs. Of course, they’re extinct, so their current metabolic rate is zero. However, it’s not entirely silly to postulate that they had whale-like metabolisms back when they were alive. We don’t know how much the large sauropods weighed either, but Brontosaurus (yes, I know it’s Apatosaurus, I’ll get back to that), is thought to have weighed in between 15 and 20 tons, if you believe Wikipedia.

In other words, the average American uses as much energy as an average brontosaurus.

Now, of course we can argue that Apatosaurus is not the right sauropod, that due to some metabolic model or reconstructed weight or other, another sauropod is a better metaphor than ol’ bronty. It’s an understandable but unwinnable argument, because the energy use of the average American is kind of a goofy concept too. A big chunk of that energy is used (and lost) transporting stuff around supposedly to benefit us, but we never see it. It is also averaged across everything from the energy use of a bum on skid row to that of a jet-setting star, and it’s a very uneven distribution. What does average mean? Who’s average? Whatever it means, the average human working an eight hour office day works pretty well on somewhere around 75 watts (resting metabolism), so we average Americans are using something like the energy of 150 humans just sitting around doing paperwork.

So, let’s just say that we are, on average, the brontosaurs of the energy world, use an outdated dinosaur name as a metaphor for how much energy we consume. We’re not the biggest energy uses by country, but we’re pretty close.

Now you might think that this energy use means we’re going to go extinct like the brontosaurs, because such energy consumption isn’t sustainable. I think the truth is a little different. As humans, we can live on 75 watts, even 250 watts if we’re working hard and not sitting around. It’s our culture that constrains us to act like brontosaurs, and I’m pretty sure our culture is going to have to change radically if it doesn’t want to disappear. Ultimately, it’s a question of identity: when it’s no longer possible for us to be American brontosaurs, will it still be possible for us to be Americans, or are we going to have to find, join, or develop other cultures that are more energy efficient? Who can we be in the future? That’s one of the questions I’m working on.


8 Comments so far
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I’m a little surprised at your units. BTUs converts to KWh, not KW. Otherwise your numbers are fine.
see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_consumption_per_capita

However, I don’t see the relevance of comparing a technological species with an extinct, non-technological poikilotherm?.

Using solar energy we could increase per capita energy use many times without causing damage to the Earth. Why should that be a problem? If we look back to our pre-industrial past when per capita energy consumption was very low, it depends on what cultural features that you would select to determine if we would be like them or not. Personally I think I would be unrecognizable to my pre-industrial revolution ancestors of the C18th. If I used their level of energy, or they, ours, we still wouldn’t get any closer culturally.

If you look at where energy is used (as you 8indicate), it is possible to eliminate these and still have a cultural landscape that looks similar to that of today, with obvious things missing. From that I would conclude that we can adapt to lower energy use and still be culturally similar in outlook, given the internal cultural changes that will happen.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Hi Alex, I divided the BTUs across one year to get the number, and it came out about right.

First up, let me point out that I like solar power. Unfortunately, there’s a little myth out there that we can arbitrarily take all the solar energy hitting the planet and use it to power human society. Most of the energy hitting the Earth does little things like keeping the atmosphere above freezing and powering the weather to move oxygen around, so that we don’t get build-ups of CO2 or dearths of O2. I haven’t tried to run the numbers, but I suspect that trying to put 10 billion people in artificial biospheres powered by solar panels, while the planet freezes around them, is orders of magnitude more inefficient than making do with less energy and letting the biosphere have most of the sun’s energy.

The bigger problem with solar is that it’s an international technology: it depends on materials from all over the globe, shipped to a plant somewhere (currently China), then reshipped for sale around the globe. This is a great system so long as we have dependable shipping. Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons, ranging from bigger storms to slower shipping speeds (for efficiency–fuel prices are still going up, even for bunker fuel), to think that we’re going to have trouble maintaining global trade at the rates we’ll need to maintain and grow PV and other international technologies at the rate we’ll need.

We’ve already got local versions of solar (like old-style solar thermal, or 1970s solar PV). These use resources from a fairly small region, and they’re a lot more resilient to disruptions in trade. Unfortunately, the local solar we’ve got at the moment is really inefficient, and there’s not much push to it more efficient.

Long story short is that we’re most likely going to have to adapt radically over the next century. Probably the simplest way to adapt is to make do with less energy, coupled with innovation to get power from the sun using local resources. Radical adaptation is the same as saying that our culture is doomed, just as the agrarian culture of the 19th Century US disappeared decades ago. That’s why I think it’s worth comparing us with brontosaurs.

Comment by Heteromeles

Covering non-arable land and water with solar is OK – it creates energy with a net heating effect as the albedo would be lower. So we won’t freeze. But we could also use power sats (which I know you’re a bit skeptical about). We do (did) have local solar PV manufactuers in CA.

International trade would be a problem if fuel is scarce. But at worst, good old fashioned sails could be used, with additional energy from biofuels and solar PV.

Bottom line I am not as pessimistic as you are about our energy supply.

I hope your writing is going well. I’m sure your scenario for the world will be well thought out.

Comment by alexandertolley

It’s going pretty well, thanks Alex, and yes, it’s more pessimistic. I’m one of those people that tends to think that the nonarable areas are better used for generating oxygen and such. Still, the great joy of pessimism is that you’re either right or you’re pleasantly disappointed, and so I won’t mind being wrong.

Comment by Heteromeles

Coming into this late, but, prosperity would be helpful because even if it bought new energy consuming whatevers, the new stuff is more efficient. Example, a new Ford Mustang delivers fuel economy that 40 years ago might’ve been matched by a Pinto (Like a Cortina, only tinnier.). If a household is able to replace a fifty year old gas furnace, their energy usage for heating is going to be far less. Of course, a period of prosperity hat coincided widely available low and no carbon energy would be especially desirable.

Comment by Tim H.

I hope to see your new book when it’s done! (I saw your comment on Charlie’s blog. I can’t comment there, because of The Tubes.)

It’s funny, I think a lot of authors put their worldviews and didactic ideas into novels because “that’s what people read”. But I’m much more likely to read nonfiction than a novel.

Comment by a scruffian

Thanks for the support. I was originally thinking about this as the setting for a novel, but it turns out to be so complex that I figured out that it was worth a book in its own right. As to whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m not clear what you call speculation about future history. It’s formatted as non-fiction, but given the post hoc accuracy of most futuristic works, probably most of it will turn out to be fiction.

Comment by Heteromeles

Fermi Paradox:

Imagine a civilization on the planet Ploxx. They have cheap star travel and they expand.

The question is, why have they not come here and Ploxx-formed our world to suit themselves? Why do we still exist?

The anthropic principle applies here. If they do exist, the fact that we also exist means that for one reason or another they have ignored us. If they did come here and multiply quick, mining our whole system so they can expand their population and send colonies to other stars, we would not be asking the question.

One possibility — they have come here, and they have colonized Jupiter. Jupiter has far more resources than Terra, so they are far richer than we are. Also they happen to be pre-adapted to Jupiter. Every time a competitor arrives intending to colonize Terra, they smush it because they don’t want competition. They *can* smush it because they have all the resources of Jupiter and the invaders have all the resources of a colonization project that hasn’t landed anywhere yet. They have ignored us because we are beneath their notice, but if we start to look like we might become competitors they will smush us too.

Another possibility — One of the early civilizations did not expand very fast, and as a result they were more stable and learned more. They decided to smush competing civilizations that tried to spread too fast, but maybe cooperated with other slow-growing civilizations in smushing things that could become threats. Perhaps their agreement involves nobody expands more than they already have. We might not hear from them until we expand enough they decide to smush us.

There are lots of ways it could go. Lots and lots. We don’t know enough to pick one.

Comment by J Thomas

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