Eating Oil

My dad used to say we’d all be eating petroleum in the future. At first I thought that was just another nutty thing and add it to the list. My dad said a lot of nutty things. His point at the time was not some cosmic, Arthur C. Clarke-like prediction, however. It was simply connecting the dots: it took energy (primarily in the form of fossil fuels) not only to farm our crops but to process them and ultimately to store and transport the foodstuffs they created. Our food is very energy-intensive. That energy once came from human and animal muscles, now it comes from machines. Those machines need oil and our farms need oil-produced products like fertilizers and pesticides as well as fuel for trucks and tractors and whatnot. In a sense we were already eating oil.

Dad didn’t know much about chemistry, but he knew that hydrocarbons and carbohydrates were pretty close on the chemical spectrum. He thought it should be easy to convert fossil fuels directly into something edible. It’s not a bad notion. You can’t get stuff much more organic than petroleum, coal, or natural gas. They were once living things after all: oil comes from marine plankton and coal from tropical plants. Dad knew that hydrocarbon resources were wildly abundant. It was the 1970s and we’d had the Oil Embargo and gas rationing but he knew that was just politics and economics. There was—and still is—plenty of oil out there. We aren’t going to run out. We’ve plucked the low-hanging fruit, to be sure, but the tree is certainly not stripped.

So Dad’s idea was that it would make more sense to synthesize food directly from the stuff in the ground rather than go to all the trouble and energy expenditure to process the oil into fuel and other agro-chemicals and then grow food, process it and transport and store it for sale. Nutty, I know, but not that improbable. We may have to get used to some rather strange food sources in the future. I suspect that wild-caught salmon might get replaced by jellyfish extract at some point, at least for the hoi polloi. The one-percenters won’t lack for anything of course, but the rest of humanity will likely be eating an interesting variety of synthetic amalgamations. I’m sure they’ll be quite nutritious and exhibit a variety of flavors and textures so we’ll get by. “Real” food will be a luxury item. It will be a difficult transition at first as we have very romantic notions about food. Ultimately hunger will win out and we will learn and adapt. Meat, for example, will likely be grown in vats instead of on animals. At some point we won’t know the difference.

All these things will require energy, and maybe the energy sources will be solar or nuclear rather than oil, so maybe we won’t eat petroleum after all. In fact, I think Dad had it backwards. We’ll be going the other way and converting carbohydrates to hydrocarbons. Or at least converting them to fuels. We already get ethanol from fermentation and mix that into our gasoline. The source of that ethanol is mostly corn (maize) and other mass-produced crops like sugarcane. A lot of waste from crop harvesting (stalks, leaves, and such) could be carbohydrate sources as well. Advances in bio-engineering will allow us to ramp up production and we’ll soon have vats of microbes belching out organic fuels for our cars and trucks and boats and planes.

Before the Industrial Revolution every society was carbohydrate-based. Food supplied the energy for humanity and their beasts of burden. The great transition of the last two hundred years has been to hydrocarbon-based societies. Coal came first, then crude oil and natural gas, and the machines took over. I suspect we’ll need a lot more of that stuff as our population grows, and we’ll have to exploit all the other energy resources like nuclear and renewables, as well as carbohydrate-based fuels. In fact, it’s all on the table. Until we come up with some amazing things like fusion or hydrogen fuel cells that can be deployed effectively we have to use what we already have. We know that it works. Yes, we have some serious environmental consequences from our energy choices, but we need the energy or our way of life goes kaput.

What I should say is we need cheap, abundant energy. Everything else depends on that. We squabble a lot over politics and “issues” and other mostly dumb things. We’d be better off thinking about the things we HAVE to do something about, namely, how to fuel the world and our lives within that world. Physics is a cruel master. There are no shortcuts. We have to have lots of available energy so we can grow and prosper as a civilization. I’m not sure where it’s all coming from, so I suspect you don’t either. I guess we’d better get to work on that.


Heaven’s Fall

I’m all burned out about / space junk / walk and talk about / space junk / it smashed my baby’s head / space junk / and now my Sally’s dead / space junk

That’s from Devo. It was 1978 and a year later Skylab came down to much hype. The station had been in a decaying orbit for years, it’s not like Devo were prescient. And of course other spacecraft had previously fallen from the sky, notably Soviet Salyut/Kosmos stations and such things as Saturn booster pieces. Skylab, however, was big. At roughly 75 tonnes* it was the largest object to ever fall from orbit. The only thing larger happened many years later when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on its return voyage in 2003. That was not only a 100+ tonne spacecraft but it held seven human passengers.

This Easter weekend we get treated to another space fall, that of China’s Tiangong-1 space station. Tiangong means “Heavenly Palace.” After its mission life Tiangong was supposed to break up in the atmosphere on a controlled re-entry. But Ground Control, it seems, has lost control of the orbiter and it’s going to come down on its own. Skylab was about ten times more massive than Tiangong. Large pieces of that craft were found in Australia. And no, no one was hit or killed. In fact, there are no known terrestrial casualties from falling space debris. A few dozen much larger objects than Tiangong have dropped out of the sky since 1957’s Sputnik-1. The third-largest, at 45 tonnes, was the second-stage of the Saturn V rocket that launched Spacelab into low earth orbit!

So we’ve been through this before. Stuff that we launch into orbit around our planet doesn’t stay there forever. It falls back to earth at some point, usually because it runs out of fuel. Space stations and other manned spacecraft orbit the earth about 200 miles up. By contrast, communications satellites use “geostationary” orbits over 20,000 miles above the earth. Those are typically boosted to higher orbits (called “graveyards”) at the end of their lifespans so their spots can be claimed by their replacements. Not so for low earth orbits. Those still encounter atmospheric drag, even if it is very small, and have to frequently fire their rockets to maintain their orbital elevations.

It’s hard to get into space and it’s hard to stay in space. And it’s even harder for humans to survive in space. As much as we all like the idea of human astronauts exploring Mars that is a daunting task. I can only imagine it would take many launches of support craft that would create both orbital and surface depots so that any human voyage could have enough supplies to get there, visit, and return. The trips to the moon took three days. A trip to Mars would take about seven months! There about a dozen people on earth who have spent more than 200 continuous days in space and only one to have spent over 400 days. Such a mission would require an enormous commitment of resources and would likely have to be international. In fact there’s a good chance it will be a private venture as governments and taxpayers will probably balk at the costs.

There’s too much to learn from our space-based adventures not to continue them. Most of the work will be carried out remotely by robots and computers, we don’t actually have to go to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars to explore these places. In fact, our drones will do a better job and there won’t be any risk to human life. That’s boring, though. People don’t care about scientific discoveries (unless those discoveries cure cancer or something). But they do like space travel and they like the idea of astronauts investigating extra-terrestrial frontiers.

At some point in the future, if we survive as a species, the synergy between our carbon-based brains and our silicon-based AIs will, I hope, be the breakthrough that enables such things as off-world living. But until then we’ll have to be content with a few astronomical Niñas, Pintas, and Santa Marias that will just barely make it across the gulf of space, and if they are lucky, plant a flag or two and get home in one piece. Don’t expect a flood of emigrants to the new worlds, though. 3500 miles was quite a distance in those days, but a ship could do it in two months, and when they got there they still had air and they could forage for water and food. Our astronauts will find their Promised Land a bit less hospitable.


*tonne: one metric ton or 1000 kilograms (about 2200 pounds)

Our Silicon Society

. . . you don’t need no silicone / to calculate poverty / there’s no need to brotha / everybody can see / cuz it’s one more time in the ghetto / one more time if you please . . .

–The Clash, “One More Time”

I’m going to give Joe Strummer and his mates a pass here, poetic license and all, but I’m sure they meant silicon and not silicone. After all, one uses silicon in computer chips, not silicone. It’s a common mistake. Silicones are polysiloxanes, synthetic polymers made (primarily) from the elements silicon and oxygen. We are familiar with them from caulks, sealants, lubricants, and a variety of heat-resistant materials. And of course as a filling material in breast implants.

Silicon is an element, not a compound. It is not found in nature in its elemental form, however. The earth’s crust is composed primarily of silica (silicon dioxide or quartz) and silicate minerals (like olivine, pyroxene, amphibole, mica, etc.). The stuff is everywhere. And we use these materials to make other materials like concrete. So not only did nature surround us with silicon-based substances, we’ve surrounded ourselves with our own versions of the stuff.

The pure form of silicon needed for electronic devices is energy-intensive. It takes a lot of heat to free elemental silicon from its oxide. Most of the industrially-produced silicon goes into ferrosilicons which are used in steelmaking. A small fraction goes into integrated circuits. But that’s the use that gets names changed: Santa Clara Valley in California is now called Silicon Valley due to all the technology and computer firms there.

Immersed as we are in silicon, it was only natural that our silicon-based creations would come to be a part of us. Soon we will encounter silicon-based entities that will pass the Turing Test and fool us into thinking they are intelligent. We are a long way from that despite Siri, Alexa, Deep Blue, and self-driving cars. But perhaps not as far as we think. After all, the Turing Test is about the appearance of intelligence. The machine just has to fool humans into thinking they are interacting with a human. It does not have to be as smart as a human. Already we know that computers are smarter than us for many, many tasks. We like to believe that we will always retain human abilities that no machine could emulate. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I don’t think it matters.

A silicon intelligence would be its own thing. It won’t just exist to mimic or think like humans. It will have its own schemes for learning and generating knowledge. The human mind isn’t the only kind of mind. The human mind may be responsible for creating artificial intelligence, but that does not mean it will be created entirely in its own image. An AI should be an AI for its own sake. And we don’t know yet what our machines are capable of.

I think we’ll get used to AIs handling things that seem off-limits now, like medical diagnostics. I can even imagine the therapeutic use of AI in psychology and psychiatry for example, since a machine could be entirely without bias or preconceived notions. It could be entirely without empathy, too, but because it is tireless and infinitely tolerant it might not matter. After all it is the patient that needs to talk, not the therapist! People talk to their pets, to their gods, and to their dead relatives. Is it so hard to imagine they’d talk to an on-line doc?

AIs will ultimately have to govern our traffic. Not just cars on the highway but ships and planes and satellites and everything. There’s a lot now, there will be more later. It will get too complex for un-enhanced humans and it will be better if we turn it over to devices more capable than ourselves. I don’t think this is something we will have to fear. Certainly once an intelligent technology emerges it will start to create its successors. It will design and fabricate newer and more improved versions of itself. That will free humans from that task.

This freedom, I think, is what scares us. What will we do with ourselves if the machines run everything? I don’t know, but I think we ought to find out. I expect we will start to learn a lot by having these silicon-based entities around. We will be interacting with things that are close enough to being alive that we’ll no longer notice the difference. At some point we’ll have to give in and say that they are alive. There are folks out there that believe the earth is alive, like a gigantic organism. Certainly the biosphere—that veneer of air and water and soil that most things live in—is a living system, with energy and material inputs and outputs. The foundation of that biosphere is crustal rock, that is, silicon-based.

Our silicon creations like phones and computers and televisions have already taught us many things. Or at least enabled us to learn some important lessons about ourselves. I was a boy when the famous blue marble picture of the earth was beamed back from Apollo. The whole notion of “spaceship earth” is an artifact of our ability to finally see ourselves from the outside. Once you see that we are all on this lonely planet in the middle of goddamn nowhere you realize the tenuousness of our biological existence. Now maybe we have some higher-plane existence outside of our biology, lots of people think so, but this one right now in the flesh-and-blood is what matters to me.

We’ve seen our silicon brethren in action on Mars, where the rovers have shown us the landscape and investigated its properties. We can’t inhabit that place until an army of silicon warriors gets there first and preps it for us. This is true for flesh-and-blood types in any extreme environment, like the ocean floor. Fear not, carbon-based life forms. Silicon is entirely natural! Isn’t that good?

Fire and Brimstone

Sulfur is one of a handful of elements that can be found in its native state, like silver, gold, and copper. The ancients knew about brimstone because they didn’t have to extract it—they could literally pick it up off the ground. With the emergence of industrial civilization the demand for sulfur and its products became so great that sulfide minerals became a more important source of sulfur. And since sulfides are the source of metals like iron, lead, and the aforementioned copper, extracting those materials produced sulfur as a by-product. Sulfuric acid, which is produced from sulfur, is among the most widely used of all industrial chemicals, something close to 200 million metric tons are produced annually worldwide. Most of it is used to make fertilizer from phosphate rock which means your food supply depends on sulfur.

In the old days people used fire for everything. They heated their homes, boiled water, and cooked food with fire. They also used fire for manufacturing processes such as smelting ores to obtain needed metals. Today we have electricity for that stuff, but we still get most of our electricity from fire. When we learned to burn coal and other fossil fuels in great quantities in order to generate electricity we moved our fires out of our homes and shops. Now we have special fireplaces (“power plants”) that burn better fuels than wood and burn them more efficiently. It was discovered early on that burning oil and gas created a great deal of pollution. Coal fires, in particular, are very messy. Soon people figured out that among the major pollutants were oxides of sulfur, and it was discovered that those chemicals could be recovered from the gases released by these fires.

Now all modern fire-making places scrub the sulfur from the exhaust. This is now the main source of our sulfur! We burn a hell of lot of fossil fuels and most of them contain significant sulfur and so we have a new, steady supply. What we used to think was a waste stream is now a resource.

That’s the lesson for me. There is no such thing as waste. We live in a material society that creates a lot a stuff. And we throw a lot of that stuff away. The steel, aluminum, and glass industries do a lot of recycling for example, so there’s proof that we can do a better job with our “one-and-done” system. But most things we make we use for a while and then we toss them. Our market economy requires new goods to be continually made and purchased so there is a lot of incentive to dump the old things.

In fact if we don’t keep buying our economy will collapse. Capitalism has to grow. A steady-state is the same thing as a death spiral. So we will continue to burn our great fires and dig up our minerals and build our things so that we can keep selling them and keep buying them. That way we can all see our wealth grow and we can continue to have faith in our economy so that we will borrow and spend and pay back our loans so that we can borrow and spend some more. All those who borrowed money expect to keep earning and all those who loaned money expect to be paid back. And so it goes.

All resources are ultimately finite. We won’t run out any time soon, even with billions of us demanding more everyday. We will however find it harder to get the stuff we need. And it will get more expensive. So we have to do better with what we have. We can’t just suck oil out of the ground and make plastic doohickeys and get rich selling them and then just let them float out in the middle of the Pacific. That plastic is enormously-resource intensive. We can’t allow that energy to be wasted. All things we make must have an end-of-life plan.

The only way we can do that is to re-work this notion of waste. There isn’t anything that is actually waste. Given enough time everything will return to its atomic constituents and get re-shaped by nature into something else. Right now we are counting on nature to take care of our messes for us. But that’s not going to work anymore. We have to see a barrel of oil not as a one-way arrow but as a circle. When we burn oil to make electricity and we recover the sulfur from the fumes that’s thinking like a circle. And that’s just a tiny little thing, imagine what we could do if we really tried.

I once had a nuclear engineer tell me he thought sealing up and burying nuclear waste was a mistake. He viewed the material by-products from the reactors as potential resources and wanted them stored in such a way that we could “get the stuff back when we need it.” I tell you I liked the way that guy thought! Maybe radioactivity makes you squeamish, it does a lot of folks, but if we are going to use it we need that kind of outlook.

God rains fire and brimstone down upon the unfaithful. Throughout the Bible those two things serve a symbol of god’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah got the fire and brimstone treatment, for example. These days we harness our fire and brimstone but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back and bite us in the ass. I don’t worry about god’s wrath, I worry we won’t catch on quick enough about this waste stuff. Because we’ll pay just as heavy a price as the S & G crowd did, just not as quickly. Their trip to oblivion was instantaneous, ours will be slow enough that we might not notice.


Cold temperatures and snowfall have finally arrived in winter-like amounts. The gods relented at last and spring seems further away than before. But the gods extract their price nonetheless:2018-02-25-snowpack-updateRed is not good. I see a lot of red. Folks in the northern Cascades are looking at a normal year. Northern Idaho is too, and Montana and northern Colorado are awash with snow. But the Oregon and Nevada numbers look bad. (The white of northern California just means there are no SNOTEL reporting sites: most are in the Tahoe region.)

But I don’t need a graph to tell me that. I’ve skied over enough rocks this season, rocks in Wyoming, rocks in Utah, rocks in Oregon, and rocks in California. There’s just not enough snow cover. Which means there’s not enough snow. Which means there won’t be enough water in the summer. Welcome to life in the West.

Alpine Meadows ski area is forecasting almost four feet of snow to fall in the next five days and Mount Shasta Ski Park is calling for almost five. The winter we have all been waiting for is about to bury us in the white stuff. California is supposed to get hammered by the upcoming storm cycle. I like it. This is good. But tomorrow is the last day of February! We’ve only really got a month—March—to get those accumulations up. The snowpack needs to get built when it is still cold and the sun’s angle is still low in the sky. By April and May the storms don’t add enough to the base and what falls doesn’t stick around as long.

But at least we’ve had a taste. I was going crazy with the lack of skiing but after a long road trip to chase the powder and some good days here locally on Mt. Ashland I feel a lot better. My skis look like they’ve hit bottom too many times, which they have, and I expect a few more gouges and scrapes before the lifts stop running. But skis can be repaired, drought-ravaged forests not so much.

Perhaps we’ll get our “Miracle March” and the snowpack will be thick and deep for the dry season. That will mean a lot of winter weather in the next few weeks. It looked like it might not come at all and then it came with a bang and I’ll bet folks will be sick of it in short order. But we need it. We need snow, snow, snow. And not just for us skier-types, we need snow to live and thrive. The water doesn’t come from anywhere else and the taps shut off by the middle of May so if we don’t get it now we’ll come up short. As a lifelong Californian, I’m used to that.

John Wesley Powell told Americans that the 100th meridian divided the watered East from the arid West. No one listened. We moved West and brought everything with us. What we have today is a series of oases in the deserts linked by highways and power lines. In California we have a gigantic plumbing system that captures the mountain snowmelt and ships it to the coasts and valleys where the people live. We’ve created the illusion of a fertile Eden but it is just that—an illusion. It works for now because we’ve got a good plumbing system and plenty of cheap electricity. But when Mother Nature denies us our snow, hence our water, things get a little tight. Our demand for water and energy is not going to slacken and our water sources aren’t going to increase. We have to make do with what we’ve got unless we want nuclear-powered desalinating plants dotting our shores. So put on your mittens and pray for more snow.

The Snow Gods

The snow gods, like all gods, are petty and capricious. They smile upon you one day and cruelly pull the rug out the next. It takes two days to get across Oregon and Idaho and into Wyoming. The forecast said Jackson Hole Mountain Resort would get steady snowfall from Thursday through the weekend. We were there and ready to shred the pow but the storm petered out somewhere over the Tetons.

Friday was our first day on the mountain and we woke to a report of trace amounts of snow. We got to the ski park early enough to be part of the first wave on the Aerial Tram and that put us on the summit minutes after opening. It climbs 4,139 feet from the base! It was overcast and blustery up top and the skiing was hard going on a slick surface. We explored the upper runs only as the lower runs were mostly closed due to lack of coverage. Locals had advised us to focus on the terrain around the Sublette Quad Chair but it was on wind hold and we had to try other places. Visibility was poor in the flat light and many of the un-groomed slopes were over-populated with moguls and icy patches.

It was a disappointing day. My buddy and I are often our own worst enemies as we are both condition snobs. We like freshly-fallen snow and live to ski the powder. That kind of skiing is both more relaxing and more exhilarating at the same time. The harder surfaces require more attention and more effort. Nonetheless we appreciated being at a new place and we made sure to explore and gain a modicum of familiarity. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort takes up four square miles (about 2,500 acres) and is thus ten times larger than either of our local hills!

Saturday we again woke to a report of trace amounts of snowfall and we watched the webcam for a few hours thinking the storm might arrive later in the day and we could go up in the afternoon to catch the fresh stuff. We gave up after lunch. That evening it snowed lightly in the town of Jackson and we figured there would be accumulations at the higher elevations the next morning.

Sure enough the morning report said two new inches and, sticking to our pattern, we hustled up there early to beat the holiday crowds and were rewarded again with “first tram.” This time it was crystal clear and without a hint of wind and we hurried off the tram and on to the slopes of Rendezvous Peak. We caught some soft turns immediately in the bowl and worked our way over to a nice patch of tree-skiing on our way to the now-open Sublette. We were able to find many nice stretches of fun skiing. We estimated they actually got closer to four inches on the upper third of the mountain. We did our best to make the most of it.

The views across Jackson Hole and to the Gros Ventre range were stunningly beautiful. The air was delightfully cold and refreshing and we worked our way through Tensleep Bowl, Laramie Bowl, the Cirque, and the Amphitheater. We were stoked as the snow skied deeper than it actually was and we pushed ourselves hard. It was crowded and got more crowded as the day went on but we found it easy to get around and didn’t experience too much waiting in the lift lines. We stopped for a beer at the Gondola Summit (9,095 feet) and were rewarded again with breathtaking vistas. The resort sits at the southern edge of the Grand Tetons and everywhere you look there are jagged, rocky peaks and snow-mantled forests not to mention the huge high valley that is Jackson Hole itself.

Everywhere we went on the mountain or in town we met friendly people whether they were residents or fellow tourists. There’s a relaxed, open vibe and everyone is cheerful and happy. Who wouldn’t be in such an alpine paradise? We stood in line with people from Switzerland and sat on the chair with folks from Down Under as well as people from all over the States. Many shared stories similar to ours— no snow back home and chasing a weather forecast with the hope of catching the elusive freshies.

The journey home was long and tiring but we made it safe and sound. The math on the trip wasn’t ideal: four days of driving for two days of skiing and only one of those good. But we were thrilled to have bluebird conditions on that one great day and it made the entire expedition worthwhile. All we want to do in the winter is ski and the snow gods are mocking us mercilessly with these drought conditions. But we got to ski and we got to ski at a spectacular place and we had good times in a happening resort town to boot.

The forecasts don’t look much better for the new year, and it will take some time before any of the resorts we want to visit get sufficient base to open all their terrain. But we managed to use our skis twice in the waning days of 2017 which was our goal. We’ll have to figure out some better means of propitiation for these indifferent deities. Any suggestions?

Chasin’ Freshies

There’s nothing here. Neither Mt. Ashland nor Mt. Shasta have much snow and neither resort looks to open anytime soon. That means a road trip is in order! The storm tracks throughout the month have been northerly and neither Utah nor Tahoe resorts are anywhere close to seasonal norms. The snow has been falling in Washington, Idaho (especially the panhandle), and Wyoming. They have the Tetons in Wyoming and that’s our destination: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

My buddy (who does the driving) is coming in an hour and we hope to make it to Idaho Falls tonight. Then an early start and we can hit the slopes Thursday and also get a full day in on Friday. If the predictions are good we should hit freshly fallen snow both days. “When it snows, we goes” is our motto but we’ve been hard-pressed to pull the trigger on a trip because of the paucity of the white stuff so far this season.

It’s New Year’s weekend of course and that means it will be busy in Jackson. Most of the motels are at or near capacity. The mountain report says that only a small portion of the lifts and thus the trails will be open to ski. “Early-season conditions” is the word. But we are desperate and willing to go almost 900 miles just to catch some runs. We already had our ski-legs by this time last season so it should be a challenge at a new park that neither of us are familiar with.

That’s part of the excitement, seeing a new place. The Northern Rockies are spectacular and the Grand Tetons are perhaps as beautiful as any mountain range anywhere in the world. We hope that there will be another following storm so that we can stay on the road and get some skiing in at another spot before we head back home. The forecasts don’t look very promising, unfortunately. Sun Valley is in a dry stretch, so are the Cottonwood resorts, and not much is happening in Colorado, either.

Wish us luck!