Sunday, April 26, 2015

Civilization would rapidly rebound after a catastrophe

Here is a comment I wrote in response to an article. The article was asking whether industrial civilization could be reconstituted from scratch after a worldwide collapse. The author argues that it would be more difficult to rebuild, now that the best fossil fuels are depleted. I argue that it would be easier to industrialize the second time around. As follows:

I think that industrial civilization would be reconstituted fairly quickly, like within two centuries.
In my opinion, It would be FAR easier to industrialize the second time, despite fewer and worse fuels. Any reborn civilization would progress through the industrial revolution far faster, and far easier, than we did originally. That is because they would start with our technical knowledge, which would more than compensate for any degradation of fuel quality.
For the first 80 years, up until about 1790, steam engines had an efficiency of just 1%. Early steam engines lost 99% of their coal energy as waste heat. This was because nobody had invented the Watt engine, the Corliss engine, the Wilkonson boring machine, the compound engine, and the Parsons engine. Those basic inventions in steam technology increased the efficiency of steam engines from 1% to 15%. In other words, that basic technical knowledge allowed steam engines to obtain 15x as much power per unit of fuel. A triple expansion steam engine from 1890 is not much harder to manufacture than a Newcomen engine from 1790, but it provides 15x the work per unit of fuel. Simply understanding the basics of thermodynamics and how to build a more efficient steam engine, results in a 15x advantage.
Any reborn civilization would start with that knowledge. They would start with engines which produce 15x the power, per unit of fuel. That advantage would more than compensate for any degradation of fuel quality. Does coal really have 15x as much energy as charcoal? The answer is no.
If industrial civilization was able to advance with 1% efficient engines, then it would be able to advance with 15% efficient engines. That advantage would far outweigh any degradation of fuel quality.
As long as a few textbooks survive and those textbooks describe how to build such engines, then industrial civilization would bounce back fairly quickly. Any new industrial revolution would be far faster than the original one.
After that, if we retained even 15 textbooks about basic physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, electricity, inventions, and so on, it would be enough to bring us well into the 20th century fairly quickly.
(The original article, to which this was a response, is here.)

3 comments:

  1. You are mostly right but still a bit wrong.
    What is right is that knowledge makes a huge difference indeed. It is actually the reason why the argument that developing countries use against developed countries when discussing CO2 emission ("You emmitted CO2 in the 19th and 20th century so I can do it now") is bogus. There is considerable "energy embedded" in the knowledge that the first developed countries created and that the developing countries got for free.
    But actually, the mere fact that there are still developing countries out there decades after the 15 textbooks your referred to have been printed, shows that these books are not enough :
    1) Accumulation of productive asset is a slow process when one starts from a low base. This is just how exponential function works. If a country doesn't get some seeds from some kind of Marshall Plan or benevolent trade, the "fairly quickly" could take two or three generations.
    2) There is a "social capital" component to capital accumulation. The values and rules of the remaining people must be conducive to capital accumulation. It is far from obvious to realize this feat (if not practically all countries would be developed by now). The more and the longer people struggle in the new catastrophic conditions, the likelier they are to loose these values.

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  2. Hi Charles,

    "Accumulation of productive asset is a slow process when one starts from a low base. This is just how exponential function works... the "fairly quickly" could take two or three generations."

    I grant this point. By "fairly quickly" I meant a couple of centuries. I meant quickly relative to the timescale of human civilization. I actually said this in the article (you might have missed it): "reconstituted fairly quickly, like within two centuries".

    "There is a "social capital" component to capital accumulation. The values and rules of the remaining people must be conducive to capital accumulation."

    I grant this also. If there were a period of warfare then things would need to settle down before capital accumulation could begin again. I am presuming that knowledge is retained after the catastrophe (like how to make better steam engines and why we need to accumulate capital).

    -Tom S

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