Putting the life back in science fiction

Hot Earth Dreams Comment Thread
November 17, 2015, 6:51 am
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Here’s the official comment thread for Hot Earth Dreams.  Comments, questions,  errata, typos, other feedback.  Yes, positive feedback is very much welcome.   Note that this is for the whole book, not just for the first five chapters in the sample.

19 Comments so far
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Are you going to get a book discussion thread on Charlie’s Diary also? I would basically be repeating what I already said via email, but more publicly, in hopes that others will give it a read.

Comment by Matt

No, I’m just doing it here. Charlie’s got a list of guest commentators queued up.

Comment by Heteromeles

Here’s what I wrote on August 12 after I finished reading the beta:

Bravo! This is the best sourcebook for deep future Earth I have ever read. It was seriously more engrossing than a number of published hard copy books I have read in the past year. It has my imagination working overtime. Your audience may be limited, but this is really good. I bought The World Without Us when it came out and I had hoped it would be something like this, except exploring the path where humans actually went extinct. Instead a lot of it was just commentary about our current environmental follies, which I was mostly up to date on and didn’t need delivered in another form. I hope that you can get a wider audience for it than your time travel novels (which I bought via smashwords a few years ago) via Charlie’s Diary or some other platform.

I left a lot of notes as I read and I’m putting this note at the beginning after reading all of it. (N.B. I copied this from my first-page PDF annotation into this email body when I saw that the note was getting lengthy…)

Lots of questions/comments that came up as I read were addressed just a little bit later in the text. I left my original notes even if they were obsolete a page later.

I didn’t find this book particularly depressing because I’ve already assumed/internalized most of the less-desirable outcomes WRT climate change, ocean acidification, sea levels, and extinctions. I will leave no children of my own so I have no particular reason to deceive myself about what future generations will inherit.

IMO you are not charting the *most likely* future trajectory of humanity, but one of the *more likely* ones. Certainly more likely than Technological Singularity or Humans Jaunt Among the Stars Like In Asimov. If I had to guess at the future I’d say that baseline H. sapiens sapiens don’t reach other star systems but do maintain complex technological societies. The microprocessor fabs and the nitrogen fixation plants keep running indefinitely into the future, at least in some places. But we don’t go to the stars or Robot Heaven either. I’m not prepared to defend that thesis in the detail you have put in here, though.

I don’t think that mineral resource depletion + climate change alone can cause a global collapse where all technological complex societies fall apart at once. But I think that resource depletion plus climate change can leave all societies vulnerable to a major disaster (nuclear war, pandemics, super-volcanoes, space impactors…). Kind of like a malnourished person with chronic infections who then suffers a compound fracture. And if humanity burns up most of the fuels, digs up most of the usable ores for all but the most common metals, and then has a thermonuclear explosive going-away party, I think that people will live the sort of futures you have outlined.

I left a bunch of notes but after reading the whole thing there were only two major ideas that I was resistant to, within the confines of the overarching scenario. One was the loss of non-fuel mineral resources. I feel that sophisticated exploitation of e.g. low-grade copper ore in the 21st century and refining it into copper pipes and wires is actually going to make things easier for people in low-infrastructure situations 10000 years hence, compared to leaving that dilute copper ore in the ground. For the deep future it will be akin to those ancient peoples who could find lumps of native copper just sitting around, IMO. Even if metals oxidize completely over long periods, the corrosion products are richer “ore” than what people originally dug out of the ground in the present century.

The other idea is how much seaborne trade is possible during periods of fluctuating climate. I think that I left a rather aggrieved note early in the text pointing out how much trade was possible even via sailing ships, before steam took over, and then not much later you explained about unstable conditions for ports. I still have an intuition that trade via sailing ship can continue at 18th-19th century scale, even if you need floating docks, but I would probably need another year and a lot of reading to reflect on and better inform this intuition.

I wrote more notes about apparent mistakes or objections than about things I really liked, but I have to say again that I enjoyed this immensely. It’s scientifically grounded and it opens the doors of imagination to millions of possible future settings. So much of science fiction contains aliens that are just thinly disguised humans. Imagining societies 10000 years downstream can provide relatable “aliens” of all sorts without fudging the science to get there.

Thanks for letting me be a beta reader.

Comment by Matt

And thank you, Matt. I did use many of your comments in the final draft.

So far as ore goes, I think I addressed that a bit better in the final version, because you made a good point. My take is that people of the deep future will routinely mine the ruins of the past to get the resources they need to live. While this is efficient and sustainable, it also means that the past will be systematically destroyed. Future human history will become a brief, moving window as the past is destroyed, becomes forgotten, then unknowable, except for weird things like the great pyramids and the remnants of various pit mines. We’re actually a lot like that now–humans have been around for something like 200,000 years, but we really only know much about our history for the past 5,000 years. The European neolithic is a scattering of samples, and the mesolithic is even scantier.

As far as seaborne trade goes, it’s worth looking at what the Hokulea is doing with its circumnavigation of the globe in a replica of a Polynesian voyaging “canoe.” This is about as big a boat as you can pull up on a beach, comparable in scale to the boats of the early European explorers, and something like it might work in the High Altithermal (harbors will start functioning again in the Deep Altithermal). There’s the non-trivial problem of getting trees big enough to make such a ship in the High Altithermal (bamboo isn’t durable enough), and there’s another problem that there aren’t going to be all that many fish in the deep sea, so the voyagers are probably going to have to bring more food with them than explorers a few centuries ago did. Oh, and many islands are either going to be submerged or less habitable. The bottom line is that long-distance voyaging will be theoretically possible, but world trade on the 19th or likely even the 18th Century scale won’t be possible until well into the Deep Altithermal.

Comment by Heteromeles

Very much looking forward to reading this!

Thought I would mention that there is a typo in the Amazon Canada product description:
Only after hundreds of thousands of years will the climate to return to what we currently consider as normal.
And then the entire description is repeated again.

Comment by Joshua

*facepalm* Thanks.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’ve been trying to find what proportion of the Terafart has already happened (as of late 2015) but failing. Any pointers?

Comment by Julian Bond

I think I’ve kind of found the answers to that.

Deep human history to 1970 =~ 185GtC,
1970 to 2010 =~ 185GtC.
2010 to 2100 is predicted to be 700-1400GtC
So either we’re 1/3 of the way there, or the terafart is really about what happens in the next 100 years. I think the 1/3 there already (as of 2010) is good rule of thumb.

btw, terafart dot com is still available today. Very tempted but uncertain what I would do with it. #terafart is trending. Or it soon will be.

Comment by Julian Bond

Glad you found those numbers before I got my brain working. Yes, the terafart is really set to rip into high gear in coming decades. The two big unknowns are how much usable fossil fuel really is out there (Shell abandoning Arctic drilling was a reminder that we don’t know everything), and what the methane clathrates “decide” to do in response to warming, because there’s more (2-5 times more?) carbon buried in the permafrost and ocean sediments than there are in fossil fuels.

As for a terafart website and #terafart, I’ll be interested in seeing whether terafart gains any traction.

Comment by Heteromeles

Excellent read, so far!

I did note one rhetorical flourish that would have the effect of completely reversing your argument for a skeptical reader; there may be others. I’d be happy to point them out if you’d like. That said, so far, it’s be extremely educational and fun to read.

Comment by Noel Maurer

Thanks Noel. By all means point out any issue you find. I’ll correct them in the next version.

Comment by Heteromeles

It seems that the idea that what happens this 50 years affects the next 400k is taking hold. This story is all over the news this week.


Comment by Julian Bond

Why does the name Andrey Ganopolski look familiar? Ah yes, in Hot Earth Dreams, I quoted the 2005 paper he did with David Archer, “A movable trigger: Fossil fuel CO2 and the onset of the next glaciation,” that was also quoted in Archer’s 2010 book The Long Thaw, which was the climate model for Hot Earth Dreams. It’s great to see this idea finally getting some press after 10 years, and it’s also good that Ganopolski apparently (I haven’t read the paper yet) kept working in the field and making better models.

Since I’m a pessimist, I’d be even more thrilled if someone not connected with Ganopolski’s original model had independently found the same result using some other method, but whichever. I’m still looking forward to reading the paper.

One side note: in the abstract, Ganopolski et al. say “Using an ensemble of simulations generated by an Earth system model of intermediate complexity constrained by palaeoclimatic data, we suggest that glacial inception was narrowly missed before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.” That seems to imply that the Little Ice Age was an aborted ice age inception. Yet another theory to add to the question of what caused the Little Ice Age.

Comment by Heteromeles

Hello Heteromeles

I really liked your book, but I did see one mistake that you may want to fix. In your chapter where you talk about various dark grey swans that could happen during the Altithermal (sp), you state that the Little Boy was 15 megatons; I’m pretty certain that megatonnage is beyond the abilities of an atomic bomb, and I think the little boy was actually 15 kilotons instead.

Comment by Whachamacallit

Thanks. This is about the Chelyabinsk meteorite, correct? It looks like the mistake was that I read Chelyabinsk’s yield as megatons, when apparently it was kilotons. If this yield is off by 1,000, I’m going to have to rewrite a couple of paragraphs in that chapter. Thanks for catching that.

Comment by Heteromeles

A few thoughts.

You may want to look at Tainter: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Tainter#Social_complexity but it is likely that you already did since his thesis (as far as the wiki crib sheet, havent rea the book) is similar to yours re. global collapse and infrastructure/fuel/trade.

You assert IIRC that once fossile fuels are gone, no one will keep Haber Bosch plants at current scale running and famines will follow. I don’t agree. As you write yourself Nitrogen fixation is about 1% of the global energy budget. That’s a lot but it’s likely we can do as much with renewables. Electric power to ammonia was mentioned on this blog a while ago. Biogas upgrading to natural gas quality is a mature technology by now, with the added beneift that existing fertilizer plants and gas gas grid can be used.
So there’s at least two pathways to keep chemical fertilizers (and explosives) coming. Agfriculture as it works now is not as nutrient efficient as it could be, with meat production etc. In sum I don’t think that nitrogen is the bottleneck global food supplies will face.
I admit that food is a complex problem and there are other issues (soil depletion, water, weather stability …).

That said I think it’s a good book.

Comment by martin089

Actually, I have a copy of Tainter’s book on collapse, and his two-page, extremely detailed definition of collapse was originally part of Chapter 17. I took it out, because it’s hard to summarize and I would have had to get his approval to include a quote of that size, but he’s still mentioned. I recommend his book to anyone who’s interested in the subject.

Nitrogen fixation is a demand hardened 1% of the global energy budget, as I mentioned in the book. Without it, we could probably support somewhere below 2 billion people on the planet (see chapter 18), so it’s one of the most critical parts of our energy budget, and ammonia is currently manufactured in huge, energy-hungry plants. That’s why I focus on it. While it probably can be made somewhat more efficient, the problem is that N2 is an extremely stable molecule that takes a lot of energy to break into N ions, however you do it. Even in green plants, it takes a lot of energy, which is one reason why making nitrogen-fixing corn or nitrogen-fixing redwoods is energetically a non-starter. You can theoretically do it, but you’re going to get stunted corn or short redwoods out of your genetic tinkering.

So far as I know, solar-powered artificial N fixation is something that’s only been done in the lab. Whether it can be scaled up to match existing Haber-Bosch plants is unknown (the general answer in these cases is no, but we can hope). There are small-scale electrically powered ammonia generators, but their output is fairly low. I put ammonia out there as a SF alternative fuel (aka a form of handwavium), not as a brilliant alternative, because I haven’t done the math to show that it could work. Matt did a bit of math and was skeptical, and I tend to believe him. As a SF fuel it works great, just as fusion plants do. In the real world, you’ve got to do the math to show that it makes sense. The major advantages for ammonia fuel is that you aren’t using carbon, it’s reasonably energy dense, and we know how to handle it. Otherwise, well, there’s a reason we went with oil in the early 20th Century, even though there was industrial nitrogen fixation even before Haber got in the game.

Biogas misses the point of getting the nitrogen out of the manure inputs too, and I’ll leave that as a math problem for you to figure out if you can extract enough methane from a biogas plant to make up for the losses of nitrogen from the poop you’re using to make the biogas, so that you can close the nitrogen cycle that way. Note that if you’re making ammonia using biogas power, all you’re doing is, instead of putting all the manure on the field, you’re fermenting the manure (which does IIRC cause some loss of nitrogen to the air), taking the methane from the fermentation, burning it, using that to make ammonia, then adding the ammonia to the remaining gunk from the fermenter and spreading it on your field. It’s possible you’ll get surplus N onto the field that way, but I’ll leave it to you to do the math and show that this works.

Or, of course, you can get rid of the meat production that provides the manure for the biogas facility. That’s more efficient, but then you lose your source of biogas, unless you’re using human manure from people fed your crops, in which case you can add in transportation energy costs to get the food to the people and the ammonia and sludge back from the sewage biogas facility to the farm.

Comment by Heteromeles

I while back I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of HB from Biogas. I assumed you can fix a bit less than a mole of N per mole of CH4 (which is not very optimistic). 1 ha of corn yields 47t/a that give about 9400Nm³ biogas at 52% CH4, so ~220kmol CH4 to arrive at about 2500kg/a Ammonia-N. To put this into perspective, this ha of corn needed 160kg N/a to fertilize.

Apparantly (but I did not do the math on this) the bigger primary energy input into HB is the turbocompression step. OTOH I’ve also seen the figure that HB takes 3% of the worlds total energy budget (but without a good source).

Biogas slurry looses little Ammonia because it’s slightly acidic, so ammonia is mostly in the form of ammonium which is far far more soluble in water. I don’t see these losses as relevant.

I’ve used corn because I have the numbers ready, biogas fermentation is possible in principle with anything organic except wood. Corn is just one of the best substrates so other energy crops would yield less.

The issue would be competition between energy crop production, food production and crops as feedstocks for other processes.

I think it’s banal that post-fossile agriculture will not work by replacing natural gas with biogas in the HB plants but by incorporating a wide range of nutrient recycling. But I stick with the claim that there’s a renewable pathway that allows us to keep our HB plants and produce significant amounts of fertilizer. Hopefully in a saner world that only requires insignificant amounts of ammunition.

Comment by martin089

We’ll agree to disagree on this, and hopefully, you’re right that there’s a sustainable pathway to Haber-Bosch. It would make the world a bit more pleasant for humans.

My source for the hard 1% was an article in Chemical and Engineering News, but as you found, they don’t like quoting where they’re getting these numbers from.

As you also noted, one real challenge is disentangling all the aspects of the industrial nitrogen cycle, from the part that goes on agriculture to feed ourselves, to the part we use to try to control the world’s food supply, to the part we use for munitions and other things. As I understand it, Haber-Bosch plants are gigantic, because efficiency comes with size. There are almost certainly ways to make them more efficient, but there’s also a chemical limit to how much energy it takes to crack N2, however you go about doing it.

Still, there’s a problem with depending on a few huge plants, in that if one of them goes down, that in itself can trigger a local collapse.

Comment by Heteromeles

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