Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Aliens and Peak Oil


Via The Anomalist, a nice essay by Mike Baron: Peak Oil and the Fermi Paradox.

The hydrocarbon energy available to a planetary civilization is analogous to the yolk of an egg: just as the yolk offers a newly emerged creature needed energy to break out of the egg and get established in the wider world, so too does a planet’s hydrocarbon energy deposits provide an emergent technological civilization the boost it needs to leave its birthworld and establish itself in its solar system. It offers a very brief window of opportunity to allow a species to develop the technologies and techniques to bootstrap itself off of its planet of origin. Once out into space, a civilization can take advantage of the thousandfold greater material and energy resources found across the solar system. Meanwhile the birthworld can rest and regenerate from its difficult birthing.

This adds to Drake’s equation and the Rare Earth hypothesis to solve the Fermi Paradox. It’s very interesting to emphasize the concept of a small window of opportunity for a civilization to leave the gravity well of its home-planet, but there are some problems for this to be a simple answer to the Italian physicist’s paradox.

The Peak Oil Apocalipse scenario is greatly exaggerated. It may put some stress on our economical and political systems, but the risk we may blow up the planet because of that is still lower than it was during the whole Cold War, when for most of the time oil was extremely cheap.

If a civilization manages to survive the age of a cheap and easily accessible hydrocabon energy source, even if did not manage to colonize space, it will be able to do that if it wants. And the lack of cheap oil may even be a strong incentive to colonize space, as cheap energy sources may lie outside the home-planet. A specially beautiful idea mentioned by Carl Sagan was to use nuclear warheads as fuel for nuclear pulse rockets.

The point is, as long as a technological civilization with a sufficiently developed science exists, it will be able to colonize space if it really wants to do that. Besides the energy stored in nuclear fuels, the energy required to put something into orbit is lower than the solar energy it may collect and direct back to the Earth, for instance. It may all be more expensive than cheap oil, and the total energy available to us my decrease substantially, but as long as science and technology exists, the colonization of space and the possible discovery and access to new sources of cheap energy are always a possibility.

Another interesting point, though, is also advanced by John Micheal Greer on Solving Fermi’s Paradox.

Greer too emphasizes the limited amount of cheap non-renewable energy and the implications of that to the Fermi paradox. But he also notes that besides the gravity well of the home-planet, there’s also the huge vacuum between the planetary systems.

So, even if a civilization manages to colonize some of the planets in its own solar system, that’s still a small step compared to the huge jump ahead. Difficult as interplanetary colonization my look, it’s close to nothing compared to interstellar colonization.

That’s very true, but again, I don’t think energy would be a fundamental problem making interstellar colonization impossible — at least not for an interplanetary civilization. As long as the civilization continues to develop science and technology and doesn’t annihilate itself, its main star will be providing plenty of energy that could be collected, stored and used for interstellar travel. But as for leaving the home-planet, it would take the will and possibly the need to do that.

Overall, all those concepts may indeed solve Fermi’s Paradox, though none of them are absolute.

The Rare Earth hypothesis may not mean we are alone, but it may mean civilizations are indeed extremely rare.

The small window of opportunity to use cheap energy sources (if they are available in the first place!) may not stop a civilization from leaving its home-planet, but it may make things much more difficult. And cheap energy on the home-planet may also induce the species to enjoy all it can on its home-planet with silly things like storing countless nuclear weapons, SUVs and private jets. Also, chemical rockets. It may boost civilization, but it may also blow up the planet.

And then, what is very likely, the huge distances between the stars may mean that there could be absolutely no reward on expanding to such distances. It may only be possible with automated probes that could take too much time to reach their destination and provide no benefit to the builders for millions of years.

There’s just one problem, though. The Fermi Paradox only takes one single civilization to dedicate itself, for whatever reason, to colonize the Galaxy for a few million years. There are also many other different concepts for interstellar colonization. A Von Neumann probe could do it.

Observation suggests not one single civilization did that in the whole history of our Galaxy, and as far was we know, the entire Universe (there are no visibly engineered galaxies). The Paradox is still there. My obvious guess is that’s something to do with some fundamental thing about the Universe we still don’t have any idea about.

The Fermi Paradox may be the single most fundamental question of 20th century science. We now know how puzzling it really is — before that, we didn’t know how large and how old the Universe is, we also didn’t really know much about the other planets and the fact there is no sign of intelligent life out there.

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Posted in Science | 3 comments

3 Comments so far

  1. Cherenkov September 26th, 2007 3:01 am

    Peak oil is perhaps the greatest challenge humanity will face in its very short technological life.

    Despite the use of blanket statements, unsupported by evidence, that peak oil will be harmless, the truth is rather easy to discern. First, a simple comprehension of the facts and physics will answer most questions. First, we live on a sphere. Hence, fossil fuel is finite. Pretty easy, huh?

    Now, simple mathematics and observation employed by Dr. M. King Hubbard led him to conclude in 1956 that the United States would peak in its oil production sometime about 1970. It did in fact peak. No matter how much technology, money, drilling, or prayer we directed at oil fields in the United States, the decline continued.

    Why is this important? Well, we are not going to continue consuming energy at the colossal rate we are once oil and gas peak. Bio-fuels will not save us because they are net energy losers. Work by Dr. Patzek (google Patzek) shows that it takes more energy inputs, primarily fossil fuel, than is produced by bio-sources. Coal, according to the latest research, will peak in fifteen to twenty years. Uranium, the favorite of the technologically addicted, is also reaching its peak.

    Meanwhile, back at a less technologically advanced level, population continues to grow. As you may or may not know, the population of the planet around 1850 was approximately 1 billion. It took, well, all of history and pre-history, some 7 million years in fact, to reach that one billion figure. But, in the space of 157 years we suddenly, in truly a blink of an eye, exploded to our current population of 6.8 billion. Why it this relevant? Well, if you graph the rise in energy use with the rise in population, you see that they correlate quite well. Technological advances, largely fueled by cheap energy, allowed population to grow. And, now here we are at the pinnacle of the green revolution. You remember that, right? Started in the thirties and forties. The application of oil and natural gas, in the form of anhydrous ammonia (think nitrogen), caused our ability to produce food to swell and keep pace with the population explosion it caused.

    So, the thing is, we now spend ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food we consume. What happens when we do peak? Start eating technology?

    You see, technologists make one fatal error in their physics. They believe that technology equals energy. That is simply not true. In fact, technology represents a huge energy sink. Since we do not count the effects on the environment, in effect we Enron the energy and environment costs, it appears that technology is efficient, but it isn’t, at least without its huge energy subsidy.

    So. We will not be leaving the planet to destroy other planets. We are stuck here with our closed system. Now, despite the assurances of techno-worshippers, we will not set up colonies in space. Why? Well, if we cannot live here on this almost perfectly attuned system seemingly designed to support life without destroying it through climate change, then how in the world will we survive in a such a crude, tiny closed system such as a space capsule? We can’t engineer a clean industrial base here on the most beautifully engineered life support system we have ever had the pleasure to evolve with.

    While we would all like to believe that Star Trek is just around the corner, we have to take responsibility for our current circumstances, our current environmental problems, which are primarily the result of technology. Because we cannot tell the future, because we cannot see ALL the consequences of our tech, we end up with such successes as asbestos fireproofing in schools and hospitals, Love Canal, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, silicone breast implants, and every other techno-catastrophe in a seemingly never-ending chain of techno-catastrophes.

    Yes, peak oil will happen. No, technology will not save us. Only an honest assessment of the mass/energy balance equations will do that.

  2. Stu July 7th, 2009 5:46 pm

    Funny how people think technology will save us from resource depletion when it’s technology that caused resource depletion. Think about it…..say someone brings out a new TV that is the latest, biggest, high tech load of rubbish with all bells and whistles….and manages to make it run on 25 watts of power instead of 250 watts. Wow…….225 less watts of power being used……..yeah but only if everyone goes out and buys one……..but how much energy is used in the manufacture……transportation etc etc……how much materials……and do you think everyone will throw out their old tv…..nope…..that will go into one of the kids rooms or whatever…..so now we have more power being used then before…..plus the energy used in the production and transport…..same with everything…….fit your house with low wattage cfl bulbs……save electricity consumption……bet you end up just using the access for something else. Look at all the gadgets and gizzmos technology has given us……enabling and causing each of us to use more power each and every year. Techno advances in manufacturing make everything cheaper……so we have throw away everything……nothing is fixed anymore……just chuck it out as soon as it fails without even knowing what is wrong……probably and 5 cent resistor or capacitor……throw that whole microwave in the bin and get another from walmart. As technology advances……we use more power……not less……thats the way it has always been and will always be. Technology can not save us because it is the cause of our problem.

  3. Rob November 22nd, 2009 6:31 am

    Wow, what an ignorant person you are! It’s not technology that’s the problem, it’s consumer culture that’s the problem.
    Technology is the only thing that will save us as without it, there is no modern world. We’d be living in caves.
    Technology encompasses everything from bricks to micro electronics. Without it there is no human civilization.
    Sounds like you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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