Theory that Civilization is a Heat Engine

A University of Utah scientist (Tim Garrett, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences) argues that rising carbon dioxide emissions – the major cause of global warming – cannot be stabilized unless the world’s economy collapses or society builds the equivalent of one new nuclear power plant each day.

“Fundamentally, I believe the system is deterministic,” says Garrett. “Changes in population and standard of living are only a function of the current energy efficiency. That leaves only switching to a non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power source as an available option.”

“The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear power plant per day.”

Garrett’s study was panned by some economists and rejected by several journals before acceptance by Climatic Change, a journal edited by renowned Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider. The study will be published online this week.

The study – which is based on the concept that physics can be used to characterize the evolution of civilization – indicates:

* Energy conservation or efficiency doesn’t really save energy, but instead spurs economic growth and accelerated energy consumption.

* Throughout history, a simple physical “constant” – an unchanging mathematical value – links global energy use to the world’s accumulated economic productivity, adjusted for inflation. So it isn’t necessary to consider population growth and standard of living in predicting society’s future energy consumption and resulting carbon dioxide emissions.

* “Stabilization of carbon dioxide emissions at current rates will require approximately 300 gigawatts of new non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power production capacity annually – approximately one new nuclear power plant (or equivalent) per day,” Garrett says. “Physically, there are no other options without killing the economy.”

Garrett treats civilization like a “heat engine” that “consumes energy and does ‘work’ in the form of economic production, which then spurs it to consume more energy,” he says.

“If society consumed no energy, civilization would be worthless,” he adds. “It is only by consuming energy that civilization is able to maintain the activities that give it economic value. This means that if we ever start to run out of energy, then the value of civilization is going to fall and even collapse absent discovery of new energy sources.”

Garrett says his study’s key finding “is that accumulated economic production over the course of history has been tied to the rate of energy consumption at a global level through a constant factor.”

That “constant” is 9.7 (plus or minus 0.3) milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar. So if you look at economic and energy production at any specific time in history, “each inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar would be supported by 9.7 milliwatts of primary energy consumption,” Garrett says.

Garrett tested his theory and found this constant relationship between energy use and economic production at any given time by using United Nations statistics for global GDP (gross domestic product), U.S. Department of Energy data on global energy consumption during 1970-2005, and previous studies that estimated global economic production as long as 2,000 years ago. Then he investigated the implications for carbon dioxide emissions.

0 thoughts on “Theory that Civilization is a Heat Engine”

  1. The battle of Stalingrad (winter of '42-'43) is traditionaly thought of as the turning point & I temd to agree with that.

    I don't think the US could have defeated a victorious Germany just with the Bomb. The Germans had sarin nerve gas which, ton for ton, is not as deadly as nukes but is up there & easier to make. Best they could have got is peace & MAD, which with Hitler is not cheerful option. Abouit 80% of German troops were on the eastern front so doing it without the Russians was a non-starter.

    I don't see that Stalin had much choice over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It wasn't an alliance but simply an agreement not to fight each other – something Chamberlain was clearly hoping for. With the British (& French in train) refusing a defencive alliance with the USSR the only options were the neutrality Stalin went for & a full alliance.

  2. RKV

    I know that the Soviets started off with a non-aggression pact with the Nazis. Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
    Aug 1939 June 22, 1941

    There is no claim that Hitler and Stalin did not start out trying to work together or at least not try to fight each other.

    Also, the article already pointed out the problem of the purge of military offices and how it caused the initial very poor results in early battles (millions dead on the Russian side)

    D-day June 6 ,1944. So The Soviets and Nazi were fighting for a long time before D-day.

    It was not a matter of morality that the Soviets/Russians fought the Nazis. It was a matter of survival. Although Stalin could have surrendered, and perhaps more Russians might have lived but Stalin would likely have been killed.

    If either the Soviets or the Americans did not have the other then victory probably would still have been possible but yes it would have meant more deaths. More deaths for the Soviets to win by themselves or more deaths for the Americans to win by themselves.

    Several million more dead Americans soldiers and raising an army two to four times the size of the army that they did raise.

  3. A couple of factual points relative to the former Soviet Union and it's conduct of WW2. 1) It started out on the side of the Germans in order to divide Poland (Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) 2) the USSR then invaded it's neighbor Finland in late 1939 under false pretenses and 3) Stalin had crippled his military by murdering near 50% of his officer corps for political reasons. Yeah lots of Russians died fighting the Nazis. Without the help of the Americans they would have died in greater numbers. Don't let's gove the Soviets any more moral authority than they actually earned, given their behavior towards their neighbors before and after the war. In short, God Damn Stalin.

  4. The turning point was Dec. 10, 1941 when Hitler declared war on the US. Had he not done so, then it would’ve been almost impossible for FDR to keep up the Lend Lease program. The American public would not have liked the idea sending vast quantities of material to a European war we were not involved in while our troops slugged it out in the Pacific.

    Around 90% of the explosives used by the USSR in WWII came from the US. This is everything from powder for bullets to explosives for artillery and tank shells. Over 100,000 Studebaker trucks were sent to the USSR. The Red Army rode into Berlin on Studebakers.

    And what would the air war against Germany had looked like without the 8th air force? The Luftwaffe could’ve had most of its aircraft in the East. Air supremacy over the plains of Western Russia would’ve been as decisive then as it was over the sands of Iraq.

  5. I agree that it turned in 1942 or 1943. And that the Germans losses to the Soviets were key. The German path was relatively set once they were deep into Barabarossa

  6. @towards infinity;
    That story has been debunked already, the captured material was low-grade and only a fraction of what’s needed for a nuke.

    My focus is on the inability to deliver a knockout blow in 941 and the serious loss in capability in the first months of Barbarossa, especially the extreme losses and degradation of motor vehicles.
    Operations as in 1941 were not really possible in 1942 any more, the Southern offensive of 1942 advanced as far as it did because Stalin allowed it to create a trap.

    Anyways; the turning point of WW2 is usually being set to mid-’42 to mid-’43, well in advance of the Normandy landing.

  7. hi, while i generally like your blog i’d like to add something…

    the assumption that the USA would have won the war in 45 with the atom bomb is flawed in that it took the material (u238) stowed away on a german sub en route to japan to build the hiroshima bomb. so if germany would have capitulated a little later the german sub would not have surrendered to the US and japan would have had the atom bomb first. Let alone germany.

  8. Sven,

    I don’t know about lost by 1941 that would mean lost once they launched Barbarossa. If after the initial success Hitler had listened to his generals and taken Moscow that might have demoralized the Russians. And if the Germans had done some more to effect the re-recruitment and resistance of the Russians or had gotten to the production facilities so what were to become the Russian tanks were producing German gear. That would have changed things a lot. Another couple of things would have been to avoid street to street fighting in Stalingrad and minimized it in Moscow. Bombing and sieging so that German troops were conserved then Germany would have been in a far better position. But however well the Germans avoid the major mistakes that still leaves 1945 when the nuclear bomb is developed. Historically they made a lot of wrong choices there and were several years behind in their program.

  9. Some additions;
    Both German and Russian division quantity doesn’t tell much.
    Both countries used the remainder of smashed divisions to create new ones.
    Division sizes varied a lot.

    You mentioned that the divisions on the Eastern front were depleted by mid-’44. that’s correct. But many divisions elsewhere (including many in the west) were very limited in their capabilities. Many such divisions were for occupation missions or for quite stationary coastal defence only.
    They had some good and many rather poor (below infantry division capability) divisions in the West in mid-’44.

    I launched a mini-article on the true turning point of WW2 on my blog and got fierce reactions. The idea that the war was already won at the time when American forces arrived (again) seems to provoke some U.S. Americans a lot.

    Hitler had lost by late ’41 in my opinion, several weeks before Axis powers declared war on the USA.


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