Taking the Next Steps on an Education of Limits

Well, the astrophysicist and I finally managed to write something together. More than a year and a half ago when I moved to Scienceblogs I promised that Eric would be my sometime- collaborator. I promise I did not realize was a total lie. You see, the way we've managed over the years to raise four kids, run a farm and work several jobs is that we trade off responsibilities - when I'm working in front of the computer, he's with the kids or working the farm. When he's at work teaching, I'm home doing the same. Yes, we do have evenings together after the kids go to bed, but what we found is that if we're not too tired to do anything but sit and read, well, we can think of more fun things to do than write blog posts together.

We finally did manage to write something together, though - a Peak Oil Review Commentary - about the challenges of teaching the issues raised by material limits, peak oil and resource depletion. This is a subject near and dear to both our hearts,
and one that I've been working with ASPO-USA to start bringing to the forefront.

Both of us find that students (and indeed nearly everyone) also have radically inflated assumptions about the merits of renewable energies, and no implicit grasp of EROEI, either as a concept or of its mathematics. This cannot be chalked up only to poor mathematical education (although it would only be helpful to have a population where everyone understands calculus, if we can't express our ideas without higher mathematics, the movement to address Peak Oil is doomed) - it is the very concept of energy return over investment that most students have not had presented to them. Once students "get" EROEI, they are often excited and astonished that no one ever proposed this to them before.

Again, EROEI concepts are not only the territory of physicists, mathematicians and geologists. The idea that a society with a declining resource base needs to think hard about returns applies across the board. This is a natural concept for business students, and I know more than one historian analyzing collapsed societies through the lens of the return they got from their investments in complexity. Seen through an EROEI-educated lens, the arts, in which human creativity transcends the base materials in which they work, whether the athletic human body (dance, theater), paper and pen (writing), the plastic arts, etc...begin to look awfully good again. Agricultural education is obviously a natural setting as well to begin see the possibilities for wealth of the biological kind that can emerge from an EROEI-educated society.

The value of these and other basic concepts does not begin at the college level. Both simplified EROEI calculations and the conceptual framework that a lower energy life does not mean certain doom are things that could be taught to students at much earlier ages than the college level - once these ideas are intuitive to a critical mass of the population, it becomes much easier to convey them. Indeed, we know many teachers who are attempting to bring these issues up to high school, middle school and even elementary aged students. As homeschoolers to three of our boys, ranging in age from nine to five, we have found that the basic intellectual grounding of these concepts is accessible as soon as you master single digit arithmetic, in the case of EROEI, or as soon as you can begin logic exercise like "Well, you could eat the cookie or give it to your friend if you only have one cookie...but what's a third choice? What else could you do?"

The biggest difficulty for most of us who teach these issues - and we know many others working in many fields and across disciplines and with students of all ages - is that so many of us are operating in isolation, attempting to invent something that does not wholly exist yet. That so many people are doing so admirable a job is remarkable - but it also doesn't have to be this way.

At this point, there simply is no resource for teachers working on these issues to share experiences. ASPO is going to step up and take a lead here, helping those of us birthing a nascent discipline to come together and organized our work. If you teach or study these issues and would like to participate in a discussion list, and perhaps eventually in the first-ever Peak Oil Student and Teacher Conference this year in Washington DC, please email us at education@aspousa.org. We look forward to having you join the discussion!



More like this

there's no chance I have time to get more involved; but- there is a parallel area of investigation in the overlapping disciplines of ecology and animal behavior; in "foraging strategy" and "optimization" research. There's a substantial literature, and a fair amount of math if you dig in.

The thing is, some of the animal models might make the entire concept more readily comprehensible to students. How big does a seed have to be; and how much energy must it contain, before it is worth while for a bird to search and pick it up? Energy gained must be more than energy spent- or you have a dead bird.

I was thinking about that a lot when I discovered my guinea fowl will spend a lot of time stripping dandelion seeds out of puffed up heads. And it gets more complicated; is it worth while for the bird to search for dandelion heads? Or is it only worth while if the head is tripped over? And exactly how much available oil, protein, and carbs are in a dandelion seed, anyway?

Is the discussion open to those outside of acedemia, such as those who teach through Transition Towns or other adult peer-to-peer situations?

Ran into this one just now! and it's spectacular:


These bustards invest a huge amount of energy in "conspicuous consumption" - there's a fantastic video. Just about the silliest looking display I've ever seen- from the HUMAN perspective.

To the bird- the investment is again, life or death; to the point that the showier birds die sooner.

Boy; that investment HAS to be paying off in increased offspring- or the "showier" types would disappear from the gene pool quickly. But- apparently; it pays, enough to be worth shortening their life for.

To me; a spectacular illustration of how important the concept of EROI truly is. And universal.

ok and hilarious, in this case; always useful in teaching.

Hi Colleen - Absolutely - that's why we mentioned things like homeschoolers, church study groups, etc...


What do we do?
Use machines to create jobs...
I believe the EROEI for solar is around 10. If we "put aside" 3 parts of that toward exponential growth of automated solar factories, ALL the problems would be solved.
Advanced machine automation could create about 600,000 square miles of installation jobs, globally! That's assuming solar power alone is used to power 10 billion people at the western standard (including not having to waste energy on spinning generators and end use efficiencies such as electric cars, more insulation, led lights, etc).
Obviously, people would charge too much to make enough arrays to cover 1% of Earth's landspace, but they wouldn't charge too much to install them!
I did some basic and simple math (which is about all I know) and came to the conclusion that "normal" solar panels would require 2% of Earth's land space AND would cause negative albedo... it emits more infrared than the land it covers. I realize that we could power 100 times the people on clean energy... if it did not waste (or emit) heat in the process.
Nuclear, if done with a molten fuel (and without dangerous high pressures) could really blow away solar... in EROEI But machine made GaAs concentrating solar dishes and freznel arrays are the ticket for exponentiating jobs. Such "better and safer nuclear" still would waste about 55% of the energy as heat (and generate waste heat from the decay of nasty stuff for some 300 years).

Gallium arsenide solar dishes concentrates such high temps that the laws of physics states that it (the unused 70% of sunlight) can re-emit in the visible, and less infrared, which can be reflected back toward the sun unimpeded by the infrared absorbing (and re-emitting) CO2 and other GHG's.

I demand this solution!

It takes care of unemployment, global warming and excess heat (which is about 1% of fossil fueled forcings). These 2 axis solar dishes need no thermodynamics, produces no GHG's (except at first stage during manufacture) and even reflects some of the excess heat byproduct. This means that global population could, convievably grow well beyond what is presently imagined, to many tens of billions, living off of machine (and home made) hydrophonics and "grown meat".

There should be no reason to not be able to build automated battery factories, as well as for all the parts of the solar dish.

By fireofenergy (not verified) on 05 Aug 2011 #permalink

oh wow, ummm,

Thank you for answering in-depth the question I asked elsewhere yesterday. I sincerely appreciate it --even though I'm always unnerved when this happens.

Have a lovely weekend!

By muchas gracias (not verified) on 05 Aug 2011 #permalink