Monday, September 14, 2015

The Spine of the S Curve

We are told that for every one person living, there are fifteen ghosts floating around. If you start at around 50,000 BCE, that puts the total number of dead people preceding our current 7 billion at around 107 billion or so.

You ever think there will ever be 107 billion people living at some point in the future? I doubt it, and if they are, they'll be infesting the solar system rather than Earth in some Kardashev level 1.4 (some 10 to the 22nd power watts to play with, if my math is right) civilization. And I also doubt you would strictly call them people, or at least, not people in ape form. And maybe not even in a watery carbon substrate.

Funny thing, or not so funny thing is, where do get the cheap energy for all those people? Well, that's the not the problem is it? It's cheap energy density that is the problem, the same way that lake or a river is good for waterwheels, but a narrow channel is much, much better.

Consider how we get by with just coal, oil, and gas. All those little archea and bacteria, laying down near teraton geologic deposits of rock and shale and carbon and all good stuff, their ghostly little selves outnumbering present populations some 20-30 to 1, means there is just a shitload of gas, coal, and oil still available. And that's not really the problem, to get an appropriate energy density to be useful, extraction has to stay below some constraint.

That's really not the problem is it? Food is the problem. Last I checked, food needs soil, air and water, and that's about it. Oh, it need a little bit more than that, but that's still far more worrisome and sophisticated a task than simply drowning in your own shit and floating to the bottom of the sea to be covered up by sediment and turned into more or less pure carbon.  

Because when you think about it, the whole system of food, which is to say the geologic environment, plus bacteria and archea, plus eukarya in the form of plants and animals, all of it based on a universal chemical dance of proton gradient and redox replenishment that makes our current best energy density look like pathetic little weenie sparks (seriously, the electric potential across a 6 nanometer mitochondrial  membrane is like 400 million volts!), and the machinery to do it, makes even our most sophisticated machine look like a cumbersome tinkertoy. And all of it done through a incredibly massive parallelism and natural selection. Why, the whole of human civilization kind of pales in comparison. No wonder the godbotherers have a hard time dropping the silly Intelligent Design argument.

Yeah, okay what's the point? You can talk about the Industrial Revolution, and I sure do agree it's a nontrivial event. But the agricultural revolution, plus the conquest of the New World ("Pangea stitch'd together again), plus good 'ol poison gas Fritz Haber, plus Norman Borlaug, and countless other experimentalists and organizations, gets you all the riches that power all the little self-replicating robots in ape form, that can take oil, gas, coal, even nukes and add only a slight addition to the actual energy budget that we enjoy and allows us to watch all our little TVs and drive our little cars and drink our little drinks and smoke our little smokes, and build our little cyberspaces, and launch our little probes out into outer space. And the really interesting thing is how all this seemingly intelligent shit, writ large as emergent global behaviors, is still not much smarter than the dumbest microbes.
Population growth of dumb things like us

America and the Soviet Union: two crabs on a beach. John Rockefeller and Standard Oil: a phagocytic amoeba. The dickless asshole Steve Jobs and Apple: an anaerobic flagellated protozoan parasite.

Come to think of it, isn't life just parasitizing the Earth? And ain't we all glad Earth is kind to have a magnetic field?

And it pretty much starts, I think, just to throw a date out there, around 1700CE. I pick that date, because (if we are lucky, and I am optimistic, and the period going forward towards, say, 2200CE or so is the spine of the S curve), that's the beginning of the Anthropocene, and everything before then pretty much looks the same. Meaning, if someone like Mark Twain, author of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (and if there is anyone who should be allowed to time travel, it's Twain), were to start in 1700, and we send him back one hundred years at a time, there's not much that is different, noticeable different. But send him forward, and things start to happen!

1800, maybe not so much, certainly improvement in our capacity to slaughter each other, 1900, for sure differences, but still recognizable to him. But 2000? Oh, the houses and streets still the same, and he able to understand most new technology. But 2100? 2200? Oh my!

I am being optimistic. And maybe I'm underestimating Twain.

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