1712. Energy and knowledge

This came to me by email.  I do not know the source. Via Paul Ehrlich.

Very VERY challenging.

Energy, Environment, and Knowledge

Marcus Kracht ((http://wwwhomes.uni-bielefeld.de/mkracht/ )
This text is based on a talk that I gave at the Koinonia Meeting in Transsylvania
this summer (2016).
I am writing this translation while the experience is still fresh.
Let me start with the personal background. I studied maths and physics,
while I actually had a deep interest in linguistics. This led me to pick up
mathematical logic, which then led me into philosophical logic. From there
the step to linguistics was rather small.
While in my daily research the knowledge of physics is of little relevance,
it became more important when I started researching our energy predicament.
It was roughly 10 years ago that a student of mine showed me a little
newspaper article about peak oil. I quickly realised that this may fundamentally
change our civilization. So I started digging deeper. As a result I
became convinced that we have now reached peak energy and that this will
have profound consequences for our lives. And though in the short run they
may be painful, actually I am quite optimistic that they will end a development
that we have long recognized as fundamentally wrong headed and
In this talk I will focus on one important issue, that of knowledge. I hope
you are curious to see what the connection is between energy and knowledge.

….In fact, science education borders on the verge of nonexistence. Ask
students a few easy questions about energy, and they probably will not be
able to answer them. They simply have no idea. There is indeed a sea of
ignorance surrounding the question: how much energy do we use, where does
it come from, and how much would a man be able to supply using only his
2 hands? Yet, while we talk of energy transition and what not, this ignorance
is not tolerable.
1.2 Knowledge and science
One origin of science is quest for safety. For the most part, our surroundings
were and are dangerous places, not only because of animals, but also because
of other people. The fact that there could always be an animal or another
tribe attacking or a disease threatening us has been a constant source of
worry. As part of the effort to counteract that insecurity, people have tried
all their wits to better understand nature.

Thus we can say that science was born in part because of the threat
posed by nature. I am putting aside here things such as simple curiousity
(a big driver of science today, I would say). But the problem is that the
further mankind went the more the surroundings changed. They changed
mainly because of our own intervention. The science used to tame nature
was also used to colonise the world. Until there was almost no wilderness
left. However, the dream that once we understood nature we would be safe
proved to be an illusion. Because the more more nature was in retreat, the
more mankind became threatened by the world he made for itself.

We are nowadays producing chemicals and outright poisons in ever growing
quantities, and we are constantly developing more and more of them, so
that we are forced to study not only the effects of a single of them on the
environment or the human body, but also the interaction of these substances
in case they would be released together. Likewise we are forced to study
not only the mechanism of a single drug but also in combination with other
drugs that a patient is likely to take as well.

There is no escape. A new discovery typically leads to the production
of some new chemical, and the faster science becomes, the faster it is at
throwing out new kinds of substances. And the more of them there are the
faster we have to do the research. Da capo al fine. (In English: repeat until

Let us pause to consider the kinds of knowledge that society and its
individuals have.

1. There is basic knowlegde and skills: writing, elementary maths, and
facts of daily life.
2. There is knowledge of history, be it of humanity, the nation, individuals
or families.
3. Knowledge of the environment and nature.
4. Abstract knowledge (science in the proper sense of the word).
5. Cultural knowlegde.
6. Administration

The last of these points may require some comments. Administrative knowledge
is not universal, it is about particular things or people; it consists in
knowing where they are and what relations exist between them. Think of a
registrar, think of townhalls and governments which store incredible amounts
of data of their citizens. Think of enterprises, universities, and so on that
generate data on their employees, clients, students. Think of warehouses and
storage facilities and you get an idea of the breadth. My estimate is that half
the knowlegde is of this kind.

Finally, let us turn to the scientific method. I have not been overly clear
in the definition of knowledge. Let us say that knowledge is a kind of belief
where what you believe is true. But how do we know that something is true?
This sounds circular, because to know that we know that S is true we need
to know that S is true. In fact, more often than not we are simply convinced
about the truth of something, without further confirmation. But in science
this is not enough. Rather, something is either true because it cannot be
false by definition (this is the domain of mathematics) or because there are
enough instances we have seen of it to be sure of its truth. This is a statistical

While with ordinary laws like the law of gravity it is not hard to witness
instances, many of the modern scientific discoveries are the fruit of laboratory
experiments that have been conducted a few times and documented. In these
cases there is nothing we can do but trust the people involved that they did
a proper job. This is the point where belief comes in: knowledge cannot exist
if we are not prepared to believe some people some times. Notice that there
is a community out there that thinks, for example, that the pictures of the
first moon landing have been created in a studio and that no one has been
up there on the moon. Whatever we may think of them, we have no proof
that they are wrong. We simply choose to believe otherwise (and think that
we have better reaons for that).

1.3 Knowledge consumes more and more energy and
stuff.  Not only research, also learning is a tiring exercise. And every generation
needs to learn anew. We all know it: learning something takes time. Humans
are not computers, their brains are not hard drives on which you can
dump information in an instant. So while the child is learning, it is sitting
on its chair consuming energy, literally. The human body is a bread-andcereal-
motor. And its nervous system consumes around 25 percent of the
total energy. My own estimates are that it is the same with society. If you
add up the figures for education (schools, universities), research and development
and, finally, administration, you get about the same figure. I used the
figures of the European Bureau of Statistics, but there you can find only the
figures for the first two items, which is above 10 percent of GDP. The cost of
administration needs to be added, but no figures are available. Considering
that they are at least that of the previous, we easily get above 20 percent.
People used to believe that the computer has changed everything. The
price of information (say, in dollars per bit, or maybe nowadays in dollars
per MByte) have dropped enormously. And the physical limit seems to be
awfully small, it is kB ln 2·T Joule per bit. (kB = 1, 38·10_23 J/K). The entire
universe is equivalent to 10120 bit of information (1080 protons or neutrons,
and 1040 bit information per particle). The entire internet stands at 1 Yotta
Byte = 1024 Byte. Not even the energy contained in an elementary particle.

Yet, in practice matters are much different. I have been unable to find
estimates of a practical lower limit. The problem with the physical calculations
is that the energy contained in a bit needs to be focussed in some way
so that it can be addressed and manipulated. (In quantum physics one talks
eg about coherence of states. The coherence in quantum computers vanishes
in a fraction of a second, so you need to store the result very quickly on a
conventional device.) It makes a difference that we humans are such large
animals compared to atoms. We can’t read from hard drives, for example, we
need instruments to do that, and they too consume energy; energy to do the
job but also when we produce them. As matters stand now, the real energy
needed is 1 million million times what is theoretically needed. The real internet
consumes more electricity than India (and even more than Germany).

Moore’s law, according to which the speed of computers and their storage
capacity double roughly every two years, no longer applies. The speed of
computer chips is not growing since 2006, and the density of storage does
not increase since 2015. Also, every new generation of chips requires factories
that cost twice as much as their predecessors.

In addition to all that, almost all elements of the periodic table are now
being used, some in quantities that means they cannot be recovered any
more. Armin Reller speaks of “spice metals”. The industrial process thus
leads not to concentration (so that we can use urban mining once we have
exhausted the mines in the countryside) but instead it leads to dispersion.
It is a one way street. Once consumed, they are lost. What used to be the
success-story of solid state physics will eventually be the cause of its demise.
The electronic equipment will eventually become much more expensive.

1.4 The more information there is the shorter its lifespan
You may think you have heard that before. But I am not going to talk about
the fact that scientific discoveries have a shorter lifespan because the army
of scientists is growing and new evidence is brought to light faster and faster.
I am talking about something more radical.

Consider what is called the event horizon. It is by all means a curious
thing. Once you cross the horizon, you have no choice but to fall into the
center. This is a necessity because of the structure of space-time. Even
light is trapped inside. That is why black holes are actually black. Black
holes have an event horizon larger than themselves so that you can actually
physically fly into them. Once you are there, however, there is no way out.
The way I see our own path of civilization is somewhat similar. We are
slowly approaching the “memory horizon”. The Codex Hammurapi, around
6000 years old, is in parts still legible. Parchment lasts 1000 years, paper
300 or more, depending on quality. In the Middle Ages, monks devoted a
lot of their time to copying manuscripts. Thanks to them we have so many
documents by Greek and Roman authors. Not the originals, but at least

Modern hard drives have a life span of five years. You need to change
them and then copy all the information from them to another that hopefully
lasts you another five years. You can argue with that as much as you want
but the physics is simple. The more information you have on your disc, the
more energy it will cost to copy it. So, if the amount of energy is not allowed
to rise (because you need to pay for it, for example), the energy per bit
needs to be reduced. But that means that the lifespan of your information
gets shorter. Less energy to store the informantion means that less energy is
necessary to destroy it. That’s all.

And thus at some point in the future we will reach the “memory horizon”.
That is the moment when the information has become so ephemeral that once
it has been written on disc we have to copy it somewhere else in order to
keep it intact. In other words, the information becomes useless, and we will
forget everything the minute we store the information somewhere.

The subtext is that this is also the moment when paper and pencil will
celebrate their revival. Because they will still be there when computers refuse
to do their service. But then all that information of the past will be gone. Or
does anyone think that cloud services will continue to store any information
under these conditions?

1.5 Big science is the big problem

The modern mythology maintains that we owe the world we live in to the
advances in science. It took three industrial revolutions to get us to this
advanced state, where life is so easy that no one needs to do any physical
work, he just controls a machine to do it for him. And almost everything
that we use today is the fruit of some human invention. Armies of physicists,
chemists, and engineers have worked hard to make them. Not to forget all
the drugs that doctors have invented or discovered.

This is the story underlying the talk of Big Science. After the Second
WorldWar, the US government tasked Vannevar Bush to recommend a policy
to advance the sciences. He advised them to finance basic research in a big
way. And so they did. Billions of dollars went into pure research, often with
spectacular success.

But this success story is coming to an end. Not because of lack of intelligent
people. But because on a global scale the energy harvested for human
use is not increasing any more. It remains at 600 – 700 Exa Joule per year (=
600 · 1018 J/a), depending on count. Again this is not due to lack of trying.
It is due to an exhaustion of existing resources. The usable energy from oil
is determined by the so-called energy return on energy invested (EROI). Today,
the EROI to get oil pumped out of the ground is around 10:1, enough to
power a society of the complexity of North Corea. For an advanced society
you probably need 20:1 to 30:1. It is clear that the mechanization will soon
stop. We cannot create more machines to do the work we used to do while
the net energy is receding.

Consider now what happens in circumstances as these when as I said
one fifth to one fourth of the society is devoted to information processing
(no matter which society we look at, by the way). It is evident that the
overall energy consumption of the information sector will drop as well. And
so we have to expect less information processing (aka administration), less
research spending, less university degrees, less money for schools. Of course,
not necessarily all of the above, but at least one of them.

But the energy is also needed to perform all the magic that big science
was able to show. No energy, no magic. And that is dangerous for the myths,
for which not only scientists themselves but also managers are responsible.
For they need technical wonders to make money. Let’s see examples.

1. The Volkswagen scandal

The more cars were on the road the more air quality became a concern.
The European government therefore introduced air quality norms for
cars. When the EU 4 went into force (2005) it was expected that
the NOx concentration should drop. But it didn’t. Carmakers were
actually unable (or maybe in part unwilling) to fulfill the norm. When
this was found out, it was reported to the authorities in Brussels. But
nothing happened. No one wanted to admit that we did not actually
go forward. When the scandal broke out it became clear that the game
of stricter and stricter norms has become something of a public event
more than a matter of actual progress.

2. The drugs and genetic industry

When a patent for a drug expires everyone is allowed to manufacture
that drug. Accordingly, there is no way the original maker can set the
price for it. Whence the need to keep the search for new drugs going,
independently of their added use. A big share of the cost is the testing.
Up to this day, however, testing is done by the manufacturers themselves,
and they choose how much and what to disclose. Similarly with
genetically modified organisms. Government oversight is not stringent,
decisions are often overruled by high political bodies. Too much money
is at stake. Yet the costs of developing new pesticides and organisms
are rising, and the added benefits are not.

So while it gets harder to make progress, the temptation is there to hide
the facts behind a smokescreen. This is where paid professionals of the PR-
industry come in, who are tasked to make look good what is not. And with
the backing of the industry they keep distorting the picture to the point
where there is no open debate any more. Try to discuss openly for example
climate change, nuclear energy or genetic research and you see what happens.
The consequence of this is that people start to believe what they want to
believe and care less and less about actual reasons. I give a personal example.
I have become convinced that genetic research is largely dangerous. Certainly
in the form of GMO research. Now you can tell me that I have no degree in
genetics and should therefore leave the verdict to the scientists. But I don’t
want to. First of all, I am not sure experts think what they say. A geneticist
depends on the genetic industry for his salary. So he is likely to defend it.

And surely he became a geneticist because he thinks this is fascinating and
is therefore likely to downplay the risks. (People want to keep on doing what
they used to do; I have seen that also with set theorists who do the craziest
research because they like it when the maths is complicated. There is littel
money involved, for sure.) And secondly, mostly the matter at hand is not
a scientific one but a moral one, too. My particular knowledge of all the
scandals and broken promises in the nuclear industry make me doubt that
the genetics industry is any different. When it comes to earning money, safety
issues take second place. So all that talk of harmless-if-done-appropriately is
simply wishful thinking. We need technology that is in certain respects fool

The consequences of this are more than alarming. Nassim Taleb claims
that the majority of people have enough of what he calls elitism. He says
people wanted Brexit precisely because they were told by the upper class
that they should not vote in favour. And they might vote for Donald Trump
or Marine Le Pen. Not so much because they like them but because they do
not believe the elite any more and don’t want to be told by them what to

And scientists are part of the elite, let’s not forget that. So it might well
be that the people will simply ignore scientists and form their beliefs without
their help. To the point where we will not have any rational debate any more.
There is a common theme according to which the majority is simply too
stupid to understand rational arguments. The problem is that they are in
any case clever enough to spot the point where the elite is arguing in their
favour. And that will be the point where argumentation will break down. It
will frustrate all those who have tried to use genuine arguments. However, it
also is the backlash against a habit of advancing technology and rationality
beyond any limits. We will soon pay a price for our hubris.

2 What are the implications?

I would like to just mention three points.

1. We throw too much technology at every problem
The future we dream about largely consists of robots that help in the
factory, elderly care and the household, we dream of intelligent cars,
intelligent houses, intelligent refrigerators … And we constantly fight
the problems induced by our technology with even more technology,
preferrably of intelligent design. But where will the energy (and the
materials) come from? The OECD states are busy funding research
into fusion (fourty years away since my childhood), nuclear energy,
“green technology” and so on. The future energy crisis however puts
all that into question. When the development halts, the technology
will simply whither away without further possibility of reigning in the
damage, like with nuclear power plants. Can we even think a future
with less technology? Can we imagine a future where products will be
much simpler in design than the ones we have today? We should give
these thoughts a real chance.
2. It is important what we decide to do with our time
What we decide to learn or not to learn influences our life. Most people
draw a line, however, between learning for the job and leisure, where we
can simply do what we want. Moreover, all learning seems to be geared
towards getting or keeping a job, nothing else. As if earning money is
the only skill we need. But nothing is further from the truth, even now.
There is so much we do not get taught anymore that is nevertheless
important (how to cook and eat well, how to raise children, how to
keep healthy). In the future, when information is no longer readily
available when we need it, one will have to use the spare time to learn
useful things rather than check your facebook account or watch another

3. The education system needs to change
The structure of our society is not sustainable. The middle ground is
being lost. On the one hand, there is an overemphasis on what we want
to do, as if necessities take second place in view of our desires. Nothing
against asking what we want, but the seduction of modern lifestyle has
corrupted our selves. There is too much focus on leisure. This problem
is being recognised frequently, but its consequences are more dramatic
in view of what lies ahead.

On the other hand there is too much emphasis on abstract, academic
skills. Almost everyone is advised to get a college degree—but what
for? Consider what happens when people decide to return to the land
to become a farmer in place of an academic? They will have to learn
all those things their ancestors grew up with. Not only will they have
to learn how to grow their food or tend the chicken, but also how to
medicate yourself in absence of a doctor—until the doctors themselves
return to the countryside. (I did not invent this: it happens in Greece
already. And in Venezuela, the president advises the people to pick up
farming in the city.) Up to now children learn all kinds of things that
are useless in practical life. They learn about lions and marsupilamis
but have no idea what goes on in the forest near to them. They learn
to handle computers but hardly do they learn to cook or grow food.
Factual knowledge, reciting poems by heart, all this is ridiculed. But
it is an important ingredient in our culture. Moreover, it really makes
a difference whether we know something by heart or not. You cannot
speak a language if you do not possess a decent vocabulary. In the
same vein, you cannot be part of the culture if you do not know some
of its poems or its songs by heart.

It may be that we will run into very big problems. Or maybe not. But if
there is only a slight chance that we will then we need to take all this very
seriously indeed.

But as Friedrich Hölderlin once said: “Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst das
Rettende auch!”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s