After reading Metazoa I wanted to explore a different branch of our phylogenetic tree, and so picked up The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a bunch of short anecdotes about the ecology of European beech forests, which is an awfully niche thing to write a book about. But then it did make the NY Times bestseller list in 2016.
I knew that this book probably wasn’t written for me, but the material is definitely cool, and I wanted to compare its style with Metazoa. Both books are trying to communicate a collection of scientific findings that border on the mystical. What makes a mind? How do ancient trees communicate through a living internet? And they both end up anthropomorphizing their very non-human subjects. Peter Godfrey-Smith makes it very clear up front that he’s a materialist. Wohlleben is much harder to pin down. I was never able to tell if he literally believes the things he’s saying, or if it’s a literary device. Normally this would get some eyerolls from me, but like I said, I don’t think I’m the intended audience. Clearly the book connected with a huge audience and successfully diffused these ideas into public consciousness.
Forests are much more communicative and cooperative communities than we’d previously thought, filled with an almost social drama playing out over centuries instead of decades. Different species share both information and materials, sometimes with kin, sometimes more generally. The fungi link together different individual organisms, and extract minerals as well. Mother trees sustain their offspring in the darkness below the canopy, so they are ready to leap toward the light when the time comes. Fire clears out the underbrush and makes minerals easily available, triggering the release of seeds. Forests migrate south en masse as the glaciers advance, but some species can get trapped, unable to climb over the Alps, and are wiped out locally. It’s a seething, adaptive civilization that you can only see through time lapse eyes.
I first came across Jeff Goodell’s writing in Rolling Stone, which published Why the City of Miami is Doomed to Drown in 2013. (Interestingly, the article has since been re-named Miami: How Rising Sea Levels Endanger South Florida.) I’ve referred to that article many times as a case study in the creeping reality of sea level rise, and society’s denial of the issues at hand, so I grabbed a copy of The Water Will Come as soon as I heard it existed. Plus, I get a shiver every time I say the title. It’s almost biblical. Like something out of the Book of Revelations. Messianic and mythic, but… also true.
But Goodell’s book begins and ends with Miami, making forays to Venice, the Netherlands, Manhattan, and Lagos in between. It reads like a kind of disaster tourism — the author seeking out people and places in various stages of realization about sea level rise, and presses them into acknowledging what it means for their city, their livelihood, their future. The responses range from denial, to complete freakout, to stoic commitment to place — going down with the ship.
Sustainable Energy, without the Hot Air by David MacKay, is a book (available in its entirety online) looking at the sources of energy available, and the ways in which we use it today. There are lots of options, but any real discussion has to, at the very least, use numbers that add up.
I’ve been looking, apparently in vain, for a good book (that’s not in German!) detailing Passive House building and modeling techniques. The best I’ve been able to do so far is Toward a Zero Energy Home, and it must have been pretty good, since I read it cover-to-cover in less than 24 hours. It’s not particularly dense or detailed, but it was a nice quick overview of low energy building systems, with lots of pretty pictures, and a dozen case studies from all over North America, including a couple right here in Boulder.
The goal that the authors have chosen to highlight — “Net Zero” — means that the buildings in question produce as much energy as they consume on an annually averaged basis. This necessarily means that they all have some on-site production, wind, PV, solar-thermal hot water, etc. However, to keep such projects reasonably cost effective, it’s necessary to focus first on energy efficiency measures. Most important among these is a very tight building envelope, much more insulation than code requires, and appropriate glazing for passive solar gain. Then the internal power loads need to be minimized, by using energy efficient appliances and LED or CFL lighting. Only after doing all that is it financially worthwhile to start adding on-site renewable generation, capable of meeting the overall annual energy demands of the dwelling. Financially worthwhile, that is, if you have already decided that you want to create a Net Zero building.
David Montgomery‘s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations reminded me a lot of When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce, except that instead of looking at how we have allocated our water resources globally, it focuses on the way humanity has husbanded (or not) its soil resources throughout history, through a vast array of case studies in what we got wrong. It also reminded me a little bit of Energy at the Crossroads, insofar as the last chapter or two, instead of being a concrete, level-headed outline of what we need to do if we actually want to solve the problem which has been presented, it devolves a little bit into a lament. You’ve convinced me there’s a problem. Clearly you have some idea of what the solution looks like. Please don’t be afraid to put that idea into words, even if you think the plausible solutions are so far removed from our current way of doing things that someone is going to think you’re crazy. I think a lot of the most credible solutions to our sustainability problems sound “crazy” to “normal” people these days… but that’s just the way it is. We still need to know what the available solutions look like, or at the very least, what characteristics one can sketch out which any available solution has to have.
Smil’s take on the future of fossil fuels seems very similar to that of Steve Koonin (and thus BP), namely that there’s plenty of all of them in the ground for us to damn ourselves to a hothouse hell, if we should so desire. I’m not entirely sure whether this strikes me as an optimistic, or pessimistic statement, but I suspect it’s pessimistic. If we were forced to change our energy systems, I believe (unlike many Peak Oilers) that we would be up to the challenge, dramatically reducing demand without reducing our standard of living, increasing conversion efficiencies, and innovating our way out of the mess partly technologically, and partly socially. If, on the other hand, we have to choose to stop burning fossil fuels, I’m much less confident that we’ll do the right thing.
Where does our energy come from today, and how do we use it? How much does it take to live the Good Life, and what, really, should that energy be used on? Where might it plausibly come from in the future, and what does the Good Life consist of anyway? Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil at least attempts to get at this stuff, looking at humanity’s utilization of energy, in the past, present, and several possible futures. But the book is a such a dense mass of numbers and graphs that I think I’m going to have to do this in several posts.
The first two sections Long-term Trends and Achievementsand Energy Linkages, look at how energy use correlates with other variables of interest, how those correlations have changed through time, and how they vary globally today. If there’s an overarching message here, it’s that nothing about today’s global energy system is straightforward. You can’t make many useful comparisons by looking at only one dimension, such as the total primary energy supply (TPES) utilized or the energy intensity (EI) of a nation’s economy, or by simply looking at mean values without considering the distribution they come from. These variables are not normally distributed. Another clear message is that the 20th century was an anomaly. The explosive global growth in fossil fuel utilization that we have seen over the last hundred years will not be sustained, for a variety of reasons, any one of which would be convincing, but which in combination are downright scary. Either the way our civilization uses energy will be utterly transformed, or the sources of that energy will change dramatically. Or both.
I just finished David Bodansky’s 600+ page tome Nuclear Energy. It’s almost a textbook, but not quite. I don’t know who the intended audience is really. Other than me. Similar genre, broadly, as The High Cost of Free Parking. A comprehensive overview of a technical topic, for those with a long attention span and no fear of numbers. I decided to read the book because of the recent turn toward nuclear power that some environmentalists have taken. There are many publics that react strongly, and negatively, to the idea, but I don’t trust public sentiment to be rational any more than I can manipulate it. Bodansky did an admirable job of remaining neutral throughout the book, on a topic that almost universally devolves into something resembling a religious debate. As a result of this reading, I’m much more positive (or rather, less negative) about nuclear energy than I was before. I think that my position, which I hope can count as an informed one, now closely resembles that of Ralph Cavanagh, as articulated in this debate with Peter Schwartz hosted by the Long Now Foundation.
The main questions I had coming into the book were:
Can nuclear energy be done responsibly?
What would it take for it to scale up meaningfully?
How would it compare in costs and risks to renewable energy sources, if it were done responsibly at scale?
The answers I came away with were that yes, it probably can be done responsibly, and at the scale necessary for it to be meaninful as a long term source of primary power globally. However, if it were to scale up responsibly in the long term, it seems that the associated costs would likely end up being greater than for renewable energy sources. So I guess I’m supportive of having the so-called “nuclear option” on the table, in competition with any other carbon free power source, with the significant caveat that the cost of the nuclear power being considered correspond to a responsible, long term, large scale deployment. The scenario I foresee needing to be avoided is ending up with an unfair comparison, between short-term and/or irresponsible and/or non-scalable nuclear power, and renewables — especially renewables as priced before the solar power industry has obtained whatever economies of scale there are to be had in their niche. One might be able to make a persuasive argument that we need to use nuclear power as a bridge between fossil fuels and renewables at scale, but I haven’t heard that argument made yet.
I finished reading Taleb’s second book, The Black Swan. He openly admits that it’s not really a new book, but a re-writing of his first book, Fooled by Randomness, which I loved. He’s gotten really incredibly lucky with the timing of his book releases… just before 9/11 and just before the stock market laid a giant turd on the doorstep of all the happytalk from Wall Street. Especially lucky when you take into account the fact that The Black Swan was at least 15 months late!
Taleb really has just one big idea, and in his own obnoxious way, he’s humble enough to admit it. His idea is that the world is less predictable than we think. That “rare” events are both systematically more likely that we believe them to be, and that their consequences are disproportionately large. He rails against the use of Gaussian distributions where they should not be used — against the mindless shoehorning of all kinds of processes into that bell shaped box, where they do not belong, and can do great damage.
I think the main differences between this book and his prior one are that in this book, he provides a few short words on how he thinks we should live and plan, given that we live in an inherently, and increasingly, unpredictable world. That, and the fact that because of his prior book’s success, he was able to get away without having this book edited, apparently, at all (which I think may have been a mistake… but oh well). Anyway, his advice in a nutshell: