Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Anthropocene and Other Topics

For the first four years of this blog I published nearly every weekday, and as time went on occasionally struggled to find suitable topics. Lately, I've been running across more good blog topics than I could conceivably cover. I think more is at work in that than my having scaled back the blog's frequency; energy has become an integral part of so many crucial conversations in the meantime. So instead of my customary single topic, today's post includes three essentially unrelated ones, all of which I thought merited sharing with my readers.

The first item concerns compact fluorescent lighting, those "CFL" bulbs people seem to either love or hate, and upon which many base unrealistic expectations of energy and emissions reductions. According to the tracking of NEMA, the Association of Electrical and Medical Imaging Manufacturers, US demand for CFL bulbs has declined for four straight quarters, while demand for the incandescent bulbs that are being phased out by law has revived to 79% of the market. This shift begs for deeper analysis. Is it the result of consumers stocking up on 100 Watt incandescents before they disappear from store shelves next January 1 and become a new kind of black market commodity, or is it more along the lines of what happened to tire sales after steel belted radials were introduced? Like the latter, CFLs last a lot longer than the traditional product they're replacing, and at some point one would expect sales to plateau at a much lower level than incandescents previously held. Or is it the case, as in my household, that CFLs are simply not viewed as a satisfactory replacement in all the fixtures where they could be placed, because of a combination of lighting quality, cost effectiveness, and concern about potential mercury contamination?

Now let's turn to plastics. Two stories, both involving Dow Chemical, caught my eye. In the first, Dow is investing in a facility to make polyethylene, a very common plastic, from ethanol in Brazil. As the article in Technology Review notes, Brazil is one of the few places that would make sense. The process of producing ethanol from sugar cane is so energy-efficient and cost-competitive that ethanol can sensibly be substituted for the petroleum products from which it might otherwise be produced there. In the other story, Dow recently announced a process for extracting most of the available energy from non-recycled plastic waste. Taken together, these two items challenge our traditional view of the relationship between oil and plastics: not only does oil no longer have a lock on the feedstock market, but it could face competition from waste plastics in end-use energy applications, or possibly even as a potential source of synthetic oil, as I noted a couple of years ago.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't recommend an article from the May 28, 2011 issue of The Economist, which had been in my reading pile for weeks. It suggests that we are living in a new epoch of the earth called the Anthropocene, signifying humanity's having become the equivalent of a force of nature in our effect on the earth and its systems. I'm intrigued by this not just because it dovetails with my view that essentially everything we do on a civilization-wide scale, including energy production and consumption, agriculture, transportation and public works, has consequences for the entire planet, but also because of its implications for what sustainability is likely to mean going forward. If the cited scientists are correct, we influence the earth's systems as much as the climate does, with climate change only one example of our impact.

The corollary to that is that an earth restored to the conditions that prevailed in the Holocene epoch from which we emerged--before we started messing with the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle, and other key processes--could not support the population expected by mid-century. There's just no going back to our bucolic roots, but neither is that a justification for the large-scale destruction of the environment needed to sustain humanity. The other interesting twist to this is that it's possible we will need the energy from the large-scale harnessing of solar power to conduct the intentional geoengineering that might be necessary to get the global climate back on an even keel. It's the sort of thing that gives environmentalists nightmares but makes believers in an approaching Technological Singularity nod sagely.

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