Memories of Times Past

Nice to see that some things are still the same. Like, for example, that those elected to student office at the alma mater are still bonkers.

As a way of telling us that we\’re all doomed we get this:

There is a fundamental physical law of the universe – The First Law of Thermodynamics. It states:

“In any closed system, the total amount of energy of all kinds is a constant”

The Earth is a closed system. It receives energy from the Sun, and the Moon pulls the oceans across the globe to make the tides. Apart from these two, almost constant, energy inputs from the outside the Earth has no other external energy sources. Any other energy source we use has to come from the Earth itself… and these sources are running out.

It\’s a bit odd to insist that we\’re in fact a closed system and then insist that we\’re not because of the Sun, but still, we get what he means.

Expensive oil, renewables are not enough, no coal, no nukes… we’re in trouble!

Yes, and that starts in the next five to ten years when energy prices rocket – not in fifty years when oil is scarce.

It’s at this point that many participants begin to experience what could be described as metanoic shock. Old certainties don’t seem so certain any more. And the comfort of our Western lifestyle suddenly seems to represent a thin veneer over the twilight zone where cheap holidays and off-road vehicles are as fond a memory as steam trains.

… What’s heartening is that some people see this impending realignment of global energy quotas as a great opportunity. A chance to redefine the balance between humans and the planet in order to create a sustainable future…

Hmm. There\’s a bit of a leap of logic there. Just a little one.

Mostly thanks to the Sun, the world also has a renewable usable energy flux that exceeds 120 PW (8,000 times 2004 total usage), or 3.8 YJ/yr, dwarfing all non-renewable resources.

So, erm, in this sense of talking about energy supply and usage, it seems a little nonsensical to talk about the Earth in fact being a closed system. For we have being poured into the system, each and every year, some 8,000 times more energy than we currently use.

In fact, I\’d say it was barking mad to talk of the Earth being a closed system in such circumstances.

But then, as I say, it\’s comforting to see that some things at the Old School don\’t change.

12 thoughts on “Memories of Times Past”

  1. Hi Tim,

    I think you should have a closer look at that post.

    I am quoting from a book by Paul Mobbs, an engineer and ecologist, so those words are not mine.

    The “logical leap” you mention is explained in terms of the relative advantages and disadvantages of energy sources in the rest of the post that you fail to quote and misrepresent here.

    I am not (and do not claim to be) an expert of physics or energy, but have a look at this –


    There is a lot of debate on the value of the terms ‘open’ and ‘closed’ for the Earth, but if you look at, it confirms that the open-closed system definitions are on a continuum. No system is completely closed.

    Also which states that “Closed systems are able to exchange energy (heat and work) but not matter with their environment”. In this thermodynamic sense, Earth is predominately a closed system (except for the fact that matter does enter the Earth in the form of meteors etc).

    Essentially, Earth is a closed system for everything but energy, which Paul makes clear when he talks about the Sun and Moon.

    Regardless of this largely academic debate, I don’t think that it affects the outcome of his arguments on the scarcity of oil/gas reserves, the shortcomings of hydrogen fuel, the impossible implications for climate change of using coal or the fact that nuclear is not a sustainable option, which you haven’t included here. I’d like to see you engage with that rather than call me (not the actual author) an “idiotarian”! We are both, after all, graduates of the same university…

    Aled 🙂

    Tim adds: I’m well aware that you were quoting: even back in the Dark Ages we had to prove that we could read to graduate from the place. The rest of your justifications rather make me giggle. “Essentially, Earth is a closed system for everything but energy,” so, err, we’re not then limited by the generation of energy here on Earth are we? Which is the point which Mobbs and you go on to try and assert.

    As to the other matters I’ve gone over them to the point of tedium in other pieces. You might be interested in this for example.
    But the basic point is terribly simple. Because the energy thrown at us for free from insolation is so vastly much greater than the energy used by human civilisation (as I point out, 8,000 times so) we don’t have an energy shortage. I agree we have an engineering challenge to capture enough of it at a reasonable price but then again, now that we’ve got people printing (using basic inkjet technology) solar PV cells on aluminium foil that’s not too much of a hurdle either.

  2. More defeatism of the “O, woe is me!, we are all doomed!” variety.
    In fact, oil and natural gas is continually produced in many areas by underground processes. It is not all coming from dinosaur graveyards a mile underground.

  3. “In fact, oil and natural gas is continually produced in many areas by underground processes.”

    Cite? (ideally from a respected oil industry geologist, rather than a raving mentalist)

  4. Its the same mistake that creationists made when they like to claim that evolution violates the second law on account of the earth being a closed system. In thermodynamic terms it most certainly is not. It recieves of the order of a kW of energy per m squared from the sun for a start. It also radiates energy as all bodies do. As minor considerations it loses bits of its atmosphere continually and gains weight from meteors and space dust.

    The only completely closed system is the universe itself.

  5. Tim,

    Mobbs and I do not try to suggest that we are unable to harness the energy thrown at us by the Sun at all. On the contrary, most of the book is about improving and expanding the use of renewables including PVs, which I fully support.

    The point that Mobbs makes is that we need to cut our consumption of fossil fuels now to avoid the potential disasters of peak oil and climate change, and to avoid completely depleting the resource (which we obviously need for more than just energy, e.g. plastics). He also makes the point that nuclear is not an option (because of the lack of uranium, besides the waste issues and other risks), that hydrogen fuel also does not present a viable alternative, and that renewables like biofuels cannot replace oil in terms of, for example, fuel to power cars. He does not argue that other renewables cannot replace oil in other aspects.

    You’re getting hung up on the start of his Introduction but ignoring the rest of the extract and book, which is about the situation we face with the depletion of fossil fuels and the need for renewables – which we seem to agree on! It seems that neither of us are “bonkers” in this respect.

    Aled 🙂

    Tim adds: “to cut our consumption of fossil fuels now to avoid the potential disasters of peak oil”. What disaster of peak oil? Come along now, you’re at a school where they teach economics. So, even if it were true, that we have indeed used 50% of oil on the planet. So what? Prices will rise, demand will fall, what “disaster”? Climate change? This is neither an immediate nor catastrophic problem. It’s a chronic one, sure, but over a long time scale. Again, you’re at a place where they teach economics. Try to find out about the difference between short term and long term elasticities.
    “because of the lack of uranium” so the both of you have no understanding of either how the mining industry works, nor of the nuclear cycle? Thorium reactors maybe? “that hydrogen fuel also does not present a viable alternative”….really? My word. Then I, several thousand scientists and tens of thousands of engineers around the world, working on fuel cells, must all be bonkers then. You mean that we all missed it? That an “independent environmental consultant” knew the truth already, that we’ve wasted years of our lives and tens of billions of dollars on something doomed to failure? Gosh. I wonder why no one listened to him?

    Might it be because he is in fact barking?
    “In many ways, a world using 60% less energy is ‘a world turned upside down’. Instead of global systems of economic production more localised systems predominate. The production of foodstuffs and food commodities would have to be localised, as this uses less energy for transportation.”

    He’s entirely unaware that the vast majority of energy used in food production comes from the method of production, not the place and subsequent transportation?
    Damn, Adam Smith pointed this out in 1776, that you can indeed grow grapes and make wine in Scotland but only at great expense.

    “The key feature of this ‘upside down’ future is that the small-scale technologies it relies upon are already available, ”

    It is to laugh. Yup. we know all about the technology of the medieval peasant and no, we really don’t want to go back there. The man’s a nutter and you’re n ot that much better for taking him seriously.

  6. “The only completely closed system is the universe itself.”

    how so if the universe is still expanding, then the energy for that must be coming from somewhere? or a better question, at the big bang, what went bang?

  7. How do you know if someone is talking shite? When he mentions Thermodynamics (or Relativity, Quantum Theory, Nonlinearity……. )when it isn’t remotely required for the point under discussion. Thus:
    “The First Law of Thermodynamics. ..states:
    “In any closed system, the total amount of energy of all kinds is a constant”” – oh no it doesn’t. It really really fucking doesn’t. Even Wikibloodypedia doesn’t claim that. Arsehole!

  8. “how so if the universe is still expanding, then the energy for that must be coming from somewhere? ”
    From the universe itself.

    “or a better question, at the big bang, what went bang?”

    A different question, rather than a better one.

  9. “Economists commenting on physics is likely to have the same grisly results as physicists commenting on economics.”

    True, although this seems to be both bad physics AND bad economics.

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