The Birth of Energy

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The Birth of Energy

Post by 7Wannabe5 »

Entropy and its tragic perspective “laid the foundation for a new cosmological synthesis” between science and Christianity, a synthesis that
remains relevant to energy politics today. As the next chapter shows,figuring out steam engines in the nineteenth century was both a practical
and a spiritual concern whose solutions touched upon the larger relationship between Christianity, industrialism, and the Earth. Some of the leading early energy scientists of the northern British camp, as devoted Scottish Presbyterians, made sense of the laws of thermodynamics by putting them into conversation with the existing Protestant work ethic and its enemy, waste. Energy scientists were thus engaged in a double reading of energy from the start. They always had in mind the cosmological, the metaphorical, the theological. Energy laws could be deployed to endorse an ethos—the ethos of the engine, the maximization of work, and the minimization of waste—that reconciled the spatiotemporal registers of Earth time and human time, God’s beneficence and cosmic indifference.
From conclusion of second chapter "The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work" by Cara New Daggett.

Available for free download here:

I have not yet finished reading myself, but I thought many here might find it interesting. It is what I would describe as a "good post-modern" take on many of the issues related to ERE. What I mean by "good post-modern" is it requires the ability to hold perspective of science/economics as subservient to politics/culture as well as the perspective of culture/politics as subservient to science/economics, but as far as I can determine thus far, the author does not subvert the science towards falsehood. However, I would be curious to learn whether those who are more well versed in physics than myself (2.5 years under-graduate level-have read Feynman whom she quotes) would agree with her take on the concepts of "energy" and "entropy."

One of her arguments, which she somewhat takes from Vaclav Smil, is that much is lost in the generalization of The First Law of Thermodynamics which informs our concept of energy. It lends itself to a sort of Rumpelstiltskin and/or dehumanizing delusion that gallons of petroleum can be directly converted into kilocalories to feed human labor or vice-versa. Smil makes clear that "density" is a quality that can not be ignored in energy flow/use analysis, and Daggett makes clear that politics can not be ignored in any energy flow/use analysis inclusive of actual humans, as opposed to idealized "workers requiring X kcalories to dig Y ft. of ditch."

I don't thoroughly agree with all of her presumptions or conclusions, but I think it is a valid and well-informed attempt at discussing the issues at approximately Kegan Level 4.8-5.4 (:lol), and, therefore, worthwhile reading.

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Re: The Birth of Energy

Post by daylen »

On a related note, the concepts of entropy and energy are so ingrained in nature and intertwined with fitness that in some sense they were always there albeit not labeled as such. No form of life in this universe would get very far without a mastery of energy flow/allocation and a drive to re-try/re-build/re-purpose/re-conquer.

As for the conversion of petroleum to kilocalories, this interpretation seems somewhat inevitable and any alternate past would probably have ran into this same trap leading to where we are now. Except that some scary ratio would have been obliterated by nuclear fallout nearly 100 years ago. Not to say that such a critique isn't warranted but humans embedded into an industrial fabric are not apt at introducing complications even if they are in fact necessary.

I would need to read more to understand how density is introduced into the picture. Density does limit how certain forms of energy can be used, yet I am unsure why that would imply that conversion into kilocalories is a bad use? The density of petroleum is what allows it to be distributed across farmland to be used as fertilizer in the first place.

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Re: The Birth of Energy

Post by 7Wannabe5 »


What I wrote was mostly my own spin on Daggett’s reference of Smil. I have also read Smil, so I know that he makes the point that the critical need for dense, portable forms of energy in our current infrastructure is optimistically/irrationally overlooked in some possible alternate flow solutions. Of course, this is obvious to anyone who has ever cussed at herself for for forgetting to charge up her battery packs. Daggett wants it to be noticed that you also can’t do straight conversion from fuel to food without crossing the line of politics.

It’s not the best analogy, but I think both are also related to J.M. Greer’s note that you shouldn’t talk about efficiency without providing the terms. Conversion into units of energy (or money) is just a hop, skip and jump away from pure abstraction. (Not there’s anything wrong with pure abstraction, if you cop to the fact that’s what you’re up to ;) )

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Re: The Birth of Energy

Post by Qazwer »

Interesting how the Protestant work ethic has invaded even our conception of energy.
This may also explain something that I am struggling with applied systems theory to lifestyle design. We are embedded in a society that decries waste and therefore any portion of network not optimized therefore is wasteful. The best system minimizes waste everywhere to take that argument to its logical conclusion.
That is clearly silly. The best system is not measured by its internal logic. I do not care how pretty my model is. I care about how well it optimized against something in my life that I care about. Waste in some portion if a model might allow another portion to excel. The cost of optimizing everywhere might not be optimal.
But in a Weber sense waste is bad.
Or in an applied sense being a Boglehead might be better than everyone trying to be an perfect capitalist using their funds to perfectly invest. (One example of an infinite number of not attempting to optimize a given portion although maybe not the best example) Waste in a portion of a model is not a moral failure.

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Re: The Birth of Energy

Post by ducknald_don »

Qazwer wrote:
Sun Mar 28, 2021 1:02 am
We are embedded in a society that decries waste and therefore any portion of network not optimized therefore is wasteful.
That's not the society I live in. In fact waste seems to be one of the indicators we use to signal wealth. Look how big my car/house/TV is when the real need is quite modest. Look how much stuff we dig up, turn into something then chuck back in the ground a few months/years later.

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