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We’re doomed!
Posted: 02 November 2008 10:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 61 ]
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Chris Crawford - 02 November 2008 09:35 AM

Where will they get gasoline and diesel fuel for their tractors? Where will they get fertilizer? Where will they get seeds? Where will they get irrigation water?

With regard to sources, I should have been more clear. I was hoping you could point us to an online source that would substantiate most or all of your statements, not just the one I referenced.

As regards farming, I was responding to your statement: “A modern farmer couldn’t even feed himself if the economy collapsed.”

I disagree. Subsistence farming does not require tractors or fertilizer. Seeds come from the crops. The only farms in this area that require irrigation are in Southern Alberta where it is very dry, and even then, it depends on the crop being grown.

Not to mention, there are industrious individuals who are even producing electricity from animal wastes:

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/ottawa/story/2007/11/27/ot-poo-071127.html

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Posted: 02 November 2008 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 62 ]
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Shawn, I think you’re right that farmers would, even in extremis be able to feed themselves, so long as mother nature cooperated. However one thing is for certain: without modern systems of transport, farmers in the past underwent periodic famine when weather or crops failed. They also fed only a few people outside their own families.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 11:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 63 ]
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Shawn, I’m sorry, but I can’t come up with online sources for the material I’m using. Most of it is in books. The source I cited (Pounds) is easily the best for this particular problem, but there are some others in my library that have utility: the three books by Braudel on the development of capitalism in Europe (starting with The Structures of Everyday Life, which I thought was great fun but is rather scholarly). I don’t think that Barbara Tuchman’s book is of much use for this problem. Most of the books on the Black Death are narrowly focussed on the event itself and its aftermath. There are a number of books providing a general discussion of human population but again, they don’t get into much detail of what was happening prior to the Black Death.

As to modern farmers supporting themselves, let me point out that most farmers buy their seed, and that some food crops don’t grow usable seeds. Worse, all modern crop varieties have been developed for use with lots of fertilizer and pesticides. Without those inputs, most modern crops would be less productive than the old medieval crops. Optimizing for one environment necessarily handicaps you in any other environment.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 02:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 64 ]
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Diesel fuel — Corn, soy, and flax seed oil.
Fertilizer —-  Human and animal waste, food scraps, fish, compost from prior crops.
Seeds —- From prior crops.  Although some (definitely not all) are genetically engineered or hybridized to not produce usable seeds, many are not.  And, even the engineered plants occasionally produce viable seeds.  It takes only a few years for farmers to recognize which plants are more efficient under the extant conditions and select those seeds.  While most of us belittle the organic farmers, they would be a great resource for non-compromised seeds that don’t need fertilizer, are naturally more resistant to pests, and produce well.

You see, Chris, you are trapped in the organization man think-within-the-box view of the world.  You come up with reasons things won’t work.  Fortunately, there are always creative people who figure out how to make things work in spite of the obstacles.

Occam

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Posted: 02 November 2008 03:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 65 ]
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Diesel fuel — Corn, soy, and flax seed oil.

You need a processing facility to get the ethanol or methanol out of these crops—how will you build one of these from scratch? What will you use to provide the energy to process the stuff?

Fertilizer—- Human and animal waste, food scraps, fish, compost from prior crops.

This approach was used during medieval times. It turns out that the nitrogen from these sources was nowhere near enough for the crops, much less for the current type of high-fertilizer crops. We could go back to a three-field rotation system… but how many of today’s farmers know how to make that system work?

You see, Chris, you are trapped in the organization man think-within-the-box view of the world.  You come up with reasons things won’t work.  Fortunately, there are always creative people who figure out how to make things work in spite of the obstacles.

No, I have learned a lot about older technologies and we moderns always underestimate just how complicated those technologies were and how dependent they were on other technologies. Even such apparently low-tech items as waterwheels required the coordination of enormous amounts of labor. Let me walk you through what goes into making a waterwheel.

First, you’ll need a woodsman to chop down the oak trees, trim them, and transport them from the forest to the worksite. You’ll also need a horse for the hauling, and all the grain and pasturage necessary for the horse. You’ll need several hundred feet of rope, which will require growing some hemp and getting a skilled workman (and a small amount of special equipment) to twist the hemp into lengths of rope. Oh, one other thing: you’ll need some miners to dig up the iron ore, a lot more trees for firewood, more workers to convert the firewood into charcoal (it’s tough to smelt iron ore with wood fuel—the energy density is too low.) Once the iron is smelted, you’ll need a blacksmith to make the axe for the woodsman as well as the other woodworking tools that will be needed. Oh, and for the leather for the horse’s tack, you’ll need tanners and somebody to gather acorns for the tannic acid, and somebody to leach the tannic acid out of the acorns. One other thing: you’ll need somebody to quarry a good piece of sandstone and shape it into a grindstone for sharpening the woodworking tools. And of course somebody else will have to build the grindstone housing.

Next you need some skilled workers to trim the wood into the constituent parts of the waterwheel. The outer sections will be fairly easy—just a lot of careful fitting and joining with hand tools. The really hard part comes in the center of the water wheel, which must be strong enough to bear the weight of the wheel even though it is pierced by the radial parts. This requires extremely tight tolerances in the placement of the holes as well as a very careful judgement of the ideal piece of wood. You can’t use iron here because it will quickly rust away in the wet environment. It will take a skilled woodworker a long time to get it good enough.

OK, now you’ve got your water wheel but you still haven’t mounted it. First you have to build a foundation on which to place it. This foundation will be part of some sort of damlike structure to route enough water into the water wheel. This foundation will probably be built out of rock and concrete. So you’re going to need quarrymen and stonecutters to get the rock and roughly shape it, as well as more horses and carts to move the rock from the quarry to the worksite. Also, you’re going to need a source of limestone that you can quarry (more quarrymen), and you’ll need to crush it (more workers), burn it (more workers and even more firewood), combine it with a pozzolan (ground pumice, brick or pottery) (lots more workers here), then heat it to drive out the CO2 (even more firewood, woodsmen, haulers, etc). You’ll need to set up a cofferdam to permit the workers to get down to bedrock—there goes even more wood, so you’ll need some more woodsmen, horses, and haulers. Once you’ve gotten the cofferdam in place, you can send your diggers in to clear out the right space for the foundations. Oh, you’ll need plenty of sturdy baskets to hoist the dirt and mud out of the work area, so you’ll need some wicker workers. And the diggers will need picks and shovels—more work for the blacksmith, and even more charcoal for his fire.

Now you’ve gotten the foundations laid and the main support structure built. You’ll need a bit more woodwork to get the mounting hardware and axle. All you have to do now is lift the waterwheel up and set it in place. Unfortunately, that’s not going to be easy. You’ll need a crane. That will require a number of long pieces of timber, quite sturdy and heavy. And lifting them up is a major problem in itself. The basic solution involves lots more lumber (hire more woodsmen) to set up a kind of scaffolding.

To actually lift the pieces and the waterwheel, you’ll need a big pulley capable of bearing the load. Your best bet is a carefully rounded round hunk of oak with a hole drilled through it. How are you going to drill such a hole? You get the blacksmith to make an awl and then you spend weeks digging down through the oak with the long awl. And you have to make sure that the hole is straight, so you have to build a jig to hold oak and awl. You’ll also need an axle for the pulley, but that shouldn’t be too hard; it might take only a few weeks to get it just right.

You’re just about there. Now all you need is a big gang of people to pull on the ropes to lift the water wheel into position. Then you secure the water wheel, remove the coffer dam (actually, it’s a bit of a trick to remove a coffer dam without getting killed in the process) and voila! You have a working water wheel generating perhaps one horsepower.

Consider all the people required to make this project work. You needed lots of woodsmen to get the tons of wood and firewood used in the project. You needed tanners, horses, carts (I never got around to talking about the people who have to make the carts), leather workers to make the tack for the horses, a blacksmith, miners, quarrymen, charcoal makers—- the project would have required the services of more than a hundred people. And not one of those people was growing food for himself, so with a 2% surplus rate, you would have needed 5,000 farm workers to provide the food for these people.

But wait—there’s more! You’re going to need to clothe and house all these people. The clothing will require roughly one woman for every two working men—add 2,500 women. I’ll give you the housing because that’s a long-term investment. You’ll also need cobblers to make the footwear for all these people… and what about the designers, organizers, police, and all the other bits and pieces of humanity we need to keep the social system operating?

When you add up all this, you end up needing a community of maybe 10,000 people to sustain the effort required to build a water wheel. And a water wheel is really low-tech! That’s my point: it takes a lot of people to provide all the bits and pieces that make up technology.

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Posted: 02 November 2008 03:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 66 ]
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Methinks thou dost protest too much!

The fact that you (a single individual) are able to sum up the above is a clear indication that a small number of people can overcome the odds. You would bring a great deal of knowledge to the table. I’m a web designer, but I can chop down a tree, survive off the land for extended periods, swim, navigate a boat on a class IV river, drive a bus, shoot a gun with reasonable accuracy, etc, etc.

I don’t think that anything short of a cataclysmic disaster causing extinction of the human race is likely going to stop us for long. We’re like cockroaches!! smile

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Posted: 02 November 2008 06:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 67 ]
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I haven’t seen the documentary, but this page has 7 short doomsday clips you can watch. Looks like an interesting doc!

Life After People

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Posted: 03 November 2008 04:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 68 ]
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The rumors of our coming extinction are greatly exagerrated. I discount the fermi paradox as evidence for reasons already covered pretty well.

Man-made threats seem over-hyped in general. Nuclear weapons are going on 70 years old.. where is the apocalypse? For nukes to do significant damage such that society would collapse (and this still does not lead to extinction) you need ICBMs- and lots of them. No country exists with any significant number of ICBMs that is overtly terroristic or “rogue” because the infrastructure that can support high technology requires modern forms of government and economy that are at odds with dictatorships. Case in point, Kim Jong Il’s pathetic gambit to become a dangerous nuclear power. What’s more, the window is closing on even this small opportunity as effective missile-interception technology has already been in testing at least 5 years. Over time, nukes are actually becoming less of a threat to the globe as a whole, not more. Most of the threats claimed to destroy us all(!!!) are similarly dismantled.

Nature on the other hand, could easily do the job. One stray asteroid could end everything other than bacteria. Here too though, time is our ally. Over time we are getting much hardier and stubborn. Our technology and culture has enabled us to thrive in not just one kind of climate, but in virtually every one of them on earth. This means that we can adjust to a very wide array of situations that we could not a few hundred or thousand years ago. It is very likely in the next few centuries we will start colonizing other worlds. That means the earth itself could be destroyed and we may outlast it on other worlds. Over time we see further, deeper, and with greater detail into the universe around us. This means we continually get better at seeing potential disaster coming. Over time our ability to deal with potential threats gets better. Over time the relative geopolitical stability has gotten better, resulting in ever improved ability to handle disaster when it does strike.

Energy-
Even with many leads in their infancy we clearly have no particular need for oil, coal or natural gas. Wind and solar are proven technologies which can not meet our demands but they don’t have to.  In 1997 the Dept of Energy concluded that bio-oil from algae was perfectly viable. The only drawback? It wasn’t price competitive with oil (which was then $20/barrel I believe). Nuclear energy would easily preserve our needs at least long enough to make the 30+ potential alternatives viable. Algea, ethanol, geothermal, hydroelectic, solar, wind, hydrogen, wave-energy, recycled trash energy (yeah), etc..,

Crowding-
Much of the earth is pretty empty actually. Ever been to Nebraska, Alaska, or Nevada? I have. The earth could probably sustain many more billions so long as improvements in agriculture and energy at least maintain their pace. People starve for economic reasons not for resource-availability ones. Overpopulation is unlikely to be any problem as the global rate of expansion has slowed and are projected to continue a decline (See Census graphic) . The reason for this is pretty obvious as industrialized nations tend to have low birthrates and the number of industrialized nations increases over time. Ironically a big problem in the future could be catastrophic natural declines in the populations of nations.

(edited to fix graphic link)

[ Edited: 03 November 2008 04:40 PM by sate ]
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Posted: 05 November 2008 01:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 69 ]
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Having just read the entire thread I have two things to address.

First, I am a Nuclear Engineer by degree, training, and NRC license.  Nuclear power plants are operated and maintained by people of average intelligence, most of them have no college degree.  All that would be needed are a few, very few people who understand the underlying science and technology.

Second, as a Biomedical Engineer, trained in bone biology, evolution does not “optimize” for anything.  It cobbles together “good enough” and that is its strength and weakness.  “Good enough” for one environment may be very good for another or very bad for still another.  We cannot say with the certainty expressed in some posts that evolution is too slow - we just don’t know.

Overall this thread was very good at investigating the “We’re Doomed” opener. cool smile

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