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Response to joshcryer (Reply #33)

Sat Feb 16, 2013, 07:44 PM

34. The issue is energy quality, and work

Algae use straight single-level photosynthesis - low energy density is the primary hallmark of low energy quality. This is were the issues of emergy analysis and transformity come into play. In order to increase the energy quality it needs to be transformed by successive levels of processing and concentration. A typical empower transformity flow looks like this: sunlight => algae => coal => electricity => computer-driven information.

The higher up the empower scale the system climbs, the more structure is needed to control the work process. Algae don't need much structure, while civilizations need a lot. The (energetically) cheapest, most effective way for a system to gain large amounts of structure and control is to organize as a hierarchy. Hierarchies have limited spans of control at each level, so it's easy for each level to exercise tight control over the energy transformation process of the level below. If every level in the hierarchy exercises control over the operation of the level below (that is, people at every every level buy into the same story of control) the whole enterprise runs more efficiently. And tight hierarchical control = authoritarianism.

This is why H-G societies get by with little structure. They mainly use low-quality energy sources, primarily the direct result of photosynthesis and natural animal growth. As a result they need a lot of territory for the sunlight to do its work. Then agriculture enters the picture and suddenly you need control over things - there are fences to mend, fields to tend, grain to store, animals to herd, food reserves to protect and distribute. So you get the beginnings of hierarchy - farmers, merchants, an authorized-force class to protect the surplus, and somebody to direct the whole operation - like a chieftain or king.

When coal-driven industrialization enters the picture the hierarchy gets deeper and wider: you add factory laborers, managers, factory owners, bankers, more police, merchants, people to transport raw materials, finished products and waste, and whole host of specialties. Dozens of new levels of hierarchy spring up, and the level of control becomes more draconian at each level. Each level lower in the hierarchy gets squeezed harder to maximize their work (or more technically their power production - the transformation of energy per unit of time), while the upper levels who exercise the control avail themselves of the surplus wealth.

It's actually hard for me to see how a large power-maximizing system could work any other way. We could have a system that worked differently, but it wouldn't maximize power. That goal would have to be discarded, and since it's the engine of the whole enterprise, right back to to algae and thunderstorms, it's going to be hard to do. I think it's impossible unless you're prepared to enforce a loss of coherence in the system, which for a complex system means dissolution.

The goal of this system is not to make a good life for people, but to turn as much fuel as possible into work, waste products and waste heat as fast as possible. Over the last 10,000 years the system has evolved into an extremely efficient entropy-maximizing engine, and the last two hundred years have been spectacularly successful in this regard. It sucks to be us, but it is what it is.

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