Air Quality

Published on September 12th, 2017 | by James Ayre

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Even Hurricanes Run Out Of Cheap Energy Eventually — If Industrial Civilization Is A Hurricane, Where Are We On Our Path Inland?

September 12th, 2017 by  

As those tracking the situation will now be aware, Hurricane Irma has weakened substantially since its high point last week when it achieved sustained wind speeds of around 185 mph.

It’s no longer even a hurricane as of the time of writing this. This is the result of the hurricane scraping large land masses such as Cuba and its fated landfall on Sunday in Florida. Hurricanes thrive on warm water and its evaporative potential. In other words, they feed on cheap, easily accessed energy. When they travel overland, they rapidly lose power.

There are still massive amounts of energy available in the warm waters surrounding Florida, but Hurricane Irma can no longer easily access that energy, leading to its diminishment and a scaling down in size and complexity. There’s certainly a parallel to be made here with regard to industrial civilization, isn’t there?

As with hurricanes, the energy is still “available” — it’s just not as easily accessed as it once was, not as “cheap” to extract, because of the path taken. This seems to be leading to reduced or stalling or fraudulent economic growth in many parts of the world.

While some people like to claim that the current way of living is something that can be sustained through a wholesale transition away from concentrated fossil fuels, the reality seems to be that things are going to have to “decomplexify” to some degree or another.

That’s going to happen one way or another — whether with a large-scale deployment of renewables or without — as fossil fuel extraction is only becoming more and more expensive by the year (I’m talking about extraction and development costs here, not the market price for oil).

Another parallel to be made concerns the path that the storm took — as if Irma had simply taken a different path, it could have kept going strong for much longer and it wouldn’t have created so much devastation so immediately (as it has). That sounds familiar, right? Similarly, people theoretically could have limited industrial civilization and kept it to a more manageable scale (with fewer shiny and flashy things and lower population numbers), and could have charted a path that would have kept its more modest energy needs fed (with less sprawl, wider use of renewables, and regional rather than global agricultural systems, etc.). But Irma was going to hit land one way or another, if it didn’t turn into the North Atlantic and fade away in another way.

So, all of that said, how far inland is the storm of industrial civilization? How much devastation has already been left along its path? How much does the storm have left?

With expensive natural disasters (such as hurricanes, forest fires, extreme flash droughts, and heat waves) becoming more and more common, and real-world economic growth seeming to be hitting a wall, it does seem as though some sort of inflection point is approaching.

When all of the above is paired with the world’s growing population, and its growing social and geopolitical conflicts — as well as its enormous and growing pollution problems (plastic as well as fossil-based) — the situation looks precarious.

While the failed states of the world are currently located exclusively in the so-called “3rd World,” that isn’t a situation that will last indefinitely. How much longer can we afford to rebuild coastal areas that will only become less and less habitable? How much longer until mass migrations make the centralized maintenance of law and order in some regions untenable? Or, at least, untenable without harsh control methods?


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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



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