Are We Seeing A Late Combustion Age Collapse?

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Photo by USMC, public domain

Humans have a habit of dividing history up into periods. On smaller scales, we have our own lifetimes. On the largest scales, we have geologic time and the various epochs in the age of the universe. What nearly always marks the beginning of a new period is a disruptive event that changes a significant portion of the topic in question.

By dividing human history (and the future) into ages based on how we obtain energy, we can see why we are in the midst of major disruptions like global warming and smaller but related disruptions, like diesel emission scandals and the recent 737 MAX 8 crashes. Looking at human history through this lens may also equip us with the tools we need to get a better handle on the current transition.

The Current Disruption

Before I get into my proposed system of periodization, I want to discuss where we are right now and put it into context.

What do things like global warming, the diesel emissions/collusion scandals, and the 737 MAX 8 crashes all have in common? It’s that we are pushing combustion technology too far. Not only are we getting diminishing efficiency returns, but we are also reaping great loss of human life, a mass extinction of animal life, and even the possible destruction of our species. The entire planet, both in the air and under the oceans, feels the effects. Our species is even causing problems in space with orbital debris, aka “space junk.”

Within wider human history and even geologic time, current events are a bigger deal than we might think. In the entire history of life on earth (long before humans), there have been five mass extinctions, with the present events indicating a sixth. Scientists are also considering calling the current geologic age (out of 4.5 billion years of history), the anthropocene, because we are affecting the entire earth now. We are really doing things that are that significant, even in geologic time.

We are clearly close to a major historical transition.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking the proverbial chickens might not come home to roost in your lifetime, regardless of your age. People are already dying in this transition. It’s not some hypothetical scenario — it could kill you the next time you go somewhere.

In our mad refusal to move on from combustion for energy, but with increasing awareness of the consequences, we are trying to push the limits of combustion technology’s efficiency, and the limits are pushing back.

Graph by NHTSA, public domain

Arguing against increased CAFE standards, the Foundation for Economic Education stumbled into the heart of the problem. One of the biggest things automakers do to increase efficiency for gas and diesel vehicles is lighten them. They rely less on overall weight and strength, and more on carefully arranged parts to protect the occupants. They even do seemingly crazy things like not provide a spare tire, just to save a few pounds and meet EPA requirements.

Meanwhile, heavier electric vehicles are proving to be the safest vehicles on the road. As my colleague Paul Fosse points out, Teslas are literally the most crash-safe vehicles on the road, and are far surpassing efficiency requirements without having to make any safety compromises. Holding onto gas and diesel is literally killing people on the daily in crashes.

Another thing killing us are the growing number of diesel emissions scandals, along with collusion among automakers to keep cleaner technologies off the roads. Facing market pressure for cheap vehicles that run on fossil fuels and regulatory pressure to produce cleaner cars, they found themselves in a paradox. To solve it, they just cheated and lied. The result is thousands of premature deaths due to increased air pollution that should have gone down.

Even air travel has been affected. The recent crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 are a great example. Both crashes were the result of computer malfunctions of the 737 MAX 8, but the story goes deeper than a computer glitch. To make the MAX 8 more efficient than previous 737 planes, Boeing put on larger jet engines at a different position than previous 737 designs, which destabilized the plane’s pitch. To “fix” this, they put in a special computer to automatically adjust the plane’s control surfaces to prevent stalls. A faulty sensor then made the computer malfunction, which steered the plane into the ground or ocean.

None of this would have been a problem if there wasn’t a simultaneous push for greater efficiency and for keeping inefficient technologies in service.

But the larger question is why we are so attached to combustion. The answer is the we have been using it for hundreds of thousands of years–possibly even a million. Moving against such long-term inertia is hard.

How We Look At History

Photo by National Park Service, public domain

It’s tempting to look at the internal combustion engine as a relatively recent development, and to trace its origins to the 19th century. That would be correct in many ways, but the wider use of combustion (or burning) by humans has a much, much longer history. It’s an important part of our origin story.

Knowing what happened before people wrote things down (prehistory) is a lot tougher than figuring out what happened even 2000 years ago (history). All we have to go on is the evidence we find that early people left behind. While still a subject of debate, people who were mostly shaped like us have been around for about 200,000 years. We know for sure that our human-like ancestors used fire long before that. Some researchers think early humans found out how to make fire as much as 1,000,000 years ago, while others place the date anywhere between 700,000 to 200,000 years ago, with increasing evidence as time went on.

The point here is that fire/combustion is in our DNA. Before we were done becoming modern humans, fire started shaping us. It changed what times of the day and night we could be awake for. It changed how we interacted with our family and tribe, leading to language. It changed the way we made tools, our relationship with animals, and even the way we got our food. It may have even made it possible to grow brains the way our ancestors did.

Fire was a major turning point for people. They went from only having access to energy from food (muscle), to having an outside source of energy to do work for them (combustion). For example, for millions of years before fire was harnessed, tools like arrowheads or spears were made with muscle power. After fire, it wasn’t long before people started using the heat to harden wooden tools and weapons, or to harden rocks and make them better for spear tips or cutting tools.

Later, people started melting rocks with metals in them, and figured out how to make copper tools, then bronze tools, then iron, all by getting better at using fire. In prehistory, people figured out how to make charcoal from wood to get a hotter fire. Later, they figured out that coal was burnable, which enabled even better metallurgy. But all along, it was still combustion powering the process.

Despite the importance of fire, archaeologists tend to divide prehistory by what humans in an area made things out of, and not what energy was in use to shape the materials used. There’s the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

The Stone Age was on the way out when humans started using copper, and was out entirely once they figured out that it was stronger when mixed with tin or arsenic to make bronze. The Bronze Age ended once people in an area started working with iron, which was far stronger than bronze.

This isn’t to say the material used isn’t important, though. As the Bronze Age came to a close, there was a major collapse of civilization in parts of Europe, Southwest Asia, and North Africa. There were a number of factors that likely led to the collapse, but one factor was the weakness of bronze weapons against iron weapons. As the knowledge of ironworking spread, so do iron-equipped armies, which could easily overwhelm an army with weaker bronze weapons.

But at the same time, the different materials used have all been shaped by combustion since 500,000-1,000,000 years ago.

Even as advanced as we are today compared to people smelting copper tools thousands of years ago, we are still relying on combustion the same way they did. Thus, we are really still in the Combustion Age.

Dividing the Ages by Energy

My idea is to divide history and the foreseeable future into three periods:

  • The Muscle Age
  • The Combustion Age
  • The Diverse Electric Age

The Muscle Age is as old as our species, and that’s up for debate. Some say it’s when hominids started making tools 2–3.5 million years ago. Others say the first human was Homo erectus, at 1.9 million years ago. Either way, the Muscle Age was at least as long as the Combustion Age, and possibly much longer.

The Combustion Age started when early humans figured out how to take advantage of fire to get more energy for work than was available from eating. As discussed previously, this dates to between 200,000–1,000,000 years ago. During the combustion age, humans got better and better at using combustion. They went from simple fires to bonfires to starting wildfires intentionally. They figured out charcoal, then coal, then other substances to combust. They went from firepits to kilns to furnaces and blast furnaces. More recently, we figured out how to use combustion for mechanical energy and finally the generation of electricity.

We are currently transitioning to what I call the Diverse Electric Age. We started making electricity on an industrial scale with hydroelectric dams, but the use of steam engines and later other fossil fuels quickly took over the vast majority of generation. Now, we are drawing down fossil fuel-based generation and replacing it with a variety of electrical sources. Now that renewables are cheaper, they’re poised to dominate, but it’s far from certain what the future holds with generation of electricity, assuming we don’t go extinct.

Electrical energy is converted into many other types of energy for storage (gravity, chemical batteries, splitting hydrogen, Sabatier reaction for methane), but this is still part of a Diverse Electric Age, even if chemicals are transported and generate electricity or kinetic energy later.

For the foreseeable future, we will find more and more ways to generate electricity and throw them into the mix. Renewables and solar are probably not going anywhere except out into space with us, to catch more energy than we could capture with the surface of the earth. Fusion will probably improve to be usable on large scales, and will join the mix. Later, we might master matter-antimatter reactions for even more power for a growing civilization.

Image by Indif, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

As the Diverse Electric Age progresses, we need to think bigger to predict it. When searching for extraterrestrial civilizations, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev came up with a theoretical way to categorize these civilizations by energy usage. This became the Kardashev Scale. He decided on three types of civilizations:

  • Type I civilizations use as much energy as falls on their planet from their local star. For Earth, that’s between 1016 and 1017 watts.
  • Type II civilizations use as much energy as their local star produces. For our solar system, that’s 4×1026 watts.
  • A type III civilization uses as much energy as produced by its whole galaxy, and for us that would mean 4×1037 watts.

Right now, humans are not yet at type I. With the possibility of fusion power and space-based solar, getting there doesn’t seem impossible. Physicist Michio Kaku thinks we could probably get there in 100-200 years. Carl Sagan took previous figures for each civilization type and estimated that 1970s humanity was at Type 0.7. Using his formula, we are probably at about .72 or .73. Just to reach zero, humanity needed a total of around 1 MW, and that likely happened during the Stone Age intermittently.

Kaku figures we could probably reach Type II in a few thousand years, and type III between 100,000 and 1,000,000 years from now, possibly achieving superluminal interstellar travel along the way.

Imagining the climb beyond Type I is where we start moving from current science to speculation and even science fiction. However, yesterday’s science fiction is sometimes today’s science fact, so it’s not a total waste of time to speculate like this. TV Tropes did exactly that.

To put this into fictional perspective, they estimated that the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spinoffs was a solid Type I civilization. The Republic and then the Empire in the Star Wars movies is a fairly advanced Type II civilization. The Culture in Iain Banks’ novels probably also sits here, but could be capable of much more. Galactic level Type III civilizations are only described in more obscure fiction, but Doctor Who’s Time Lords and eventually the Daleks exceed Type III, making for a possible Type IV.

We might climb to Type II by encapsulating a star and taking all of its energy with a Dyson Sphere, or by collecting a fraction of a star’s energy in many star systems. For Type III, we might find an exotic new technology, or find a way to collect energy from black holes. The further we go into the future, the harder it gets to predict.

Keep in mind that early humans would find our current level of mastery of combustion unimaginable, and as we learn to master other energy sources to produce more and more electricity, we may eventually get to the point where our present population would find the technology unimaginable. Imagining the next age, assuming we don’t die off before then, is probably impossible for us now.

What could be beyond electricity on galactic scales? Fiction does speculate on this. We might eventually get to the point of a civilization like the Q in Star Trek, or the Ancients in the various Stargate series. Long before our descendents get anywhere close to exiting the Diverse Electric Age, they will probably become so different from us that they don’t see us as even the same species.

To them, we will be something like the common ancestor we share with Chimpanzees. We are human. Our descendants eventually will not be.

Why Does Any of this Matter?

Photo by Jennifer Sensiba

The reason I wrote this at all is to show just how important the present day is for our species. We are in the midst of a big transition, and big transitions are dangerous. The choices we make today, both individually and collectively, are going to impact the future of our species for millions of years.

Will we succeed at transitioning to the Diverse Electric Age from the Combustion Age? Quickly switching from combustion can’t get rid of all of the effects of burning fossil fuels, but it can minimize the impact. We could usher in a new age of clean power that continues our species’ climb out of poverty.

Or will we bomb this transition and have a Late Combustion Age collapse? Assuming we don’t go completely extinct, we could be in for a big population bottleneck over the next 100-200 years that will delay progress for hundreds or thousands of years. We could experience a dark age that makes prior dark ages (which weren’t as dark as many think) look rather enlightened.

Most importantly, we need something to look forward to. It’s easy to get caught up in the needs and wants of the present, and to think the economic impact of change isn’t worth the costs. If we don’t look forward to better things, we are tempted to look for a better past and not do what we need to get to a better future. We shouldn’t be trying to make any of our lands “great again” when it’s possible to make things greater than they’ve ever been.

That’s how critical the present day is, and that’s our challenge.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1773 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba