Throughput: An Illustration
The Throughput of a Small Radar Station
It was winter in Northern Vermont, and Lisa my former partner, and I were living in our unfinished house. It was our first winter and now the outside temperature was 20 degrees below zero. We found out that the temperature difference between the outside and inside was only 40 degrees and when it was 20 below outside it was only 20 above inside even with the woodstove roaring. Our main electricity was a marine battery hooked up to the lights and radio. We had two batteries and we were able to charge one up in the car as we drove to work and back. We also had a generator to operate the tools needed to build the house.
During the summer and fall we had so much to do to get ready for our first winter that we decided to pack our T.V. and V.C.R. away. We hadn’t seen television for quite some time and now we were really ready to watch a movie. Lisa and I decided to invite our neighbors, Laini and Barry, over for some entertainment. They didn’t have a T.V. so they were eager to come over. Lisa and I unpacked the VCR and TV and set it up. It had snowed so we shoveled the car out and traveled down to our general store where they have an incredible selection of videos all of which fits on one small wall. The great thing about the selection is that it only takes two minutes to decide which movie you want to see. Since we hadn’t seen a movie in a long, long time we were extremely happy to watch anything. We traveled back to our cold house and got ready for our guest. Lisa finished baking some brownies while I started the generator. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t have enough gas to run the generator for the whole movie. I had to go back to the store that sells everything you need, and get the gas. While I was getting the gas Barry and Laini were walking out from their house. The road they live on had several feet of snow and walking up to their car was quite an experience. The wind always seems to blow straight across the road and with snow blowing so hard you can’t see when it’s 20 below…well let’s just say it is an experience.
I got back to the house about the same time Laini and Barry arrived. They were sorry they were late, but their car was snowed in and it had to be shoveled out. They entered our house. No one took their hats, gloves or coats off but at least it was warmer than outside. The generator liked the cold as much as we did. It was so hard to pull the starter cord and when it finally started it just chugged for a while until it warmed up and began to purr.
Everyone settled in with blankets and brownies ready to watch our movie. I turned on the TV and VCR and pushed in the tape. The movie was a little fuzzy so I said, “I’m going to clean the heads on the VCR, so the picture comes in better. It’ll only take a minute.” I had an alcohol solution to clean the heads and soon I was done and once again pushed the tape back in. There was no picture at all. The alcohol had frozen onto the heads. We fooled around for about fifteen minutes but with no luck. Barry and Laini took off all the blankets, thanked us for the brownies and headed back home. I shut the generator off and came into the house. All Lisa could say was how nice it was to be able to entertain our neighbors.
The next day while returning the movie I saw Peter and Kristen who lived about a mile down our road. I told them about our movie watching episode and we had quite a laugh. Peter called the whole process, sequencing. I asked Peter what exactly was sequencing. Peter replied, “You know, when you have to do a million things before the thing you really want to do.” From that day on sequencing became a word often used in our vocabulary.
Sequencing has another name in the environmental world. It is called throughput. Throughput is the energy and materials needed to maintain a system. Let’s consider a person who wants to purchase a drinking glass. About 80% of all the energy used in the world is derived from fossil fuels (coal, gas or oil) so most of the energy needed to produce this glass would probably be in the form of fossil fuel. This includes electricity, which is mostly generated using fossil fuels. If we need fossil fuels to produce this glass we need to first find the fossil fuel. The equipment needed to locate fossil fuel reserves needs to be manufactured and this in itself needs materials and fossil fuels. Once the area in which the fossil fuel is found, the process of mining or drilling takes place, using up more materials and fossil fuels. One can see that each step of the process, transportation of fossil fuels, refining the fossil fuels, building the glass factory, mining the materials needed for the glass, etc. all need materials and fossil fuels. As time goes on the reserves are further away, deeper and harder to get increasing the amount of energy and materials needed. At last the glass is made at the factory, shipped to the warehouse, and finally to the store. The consumer sees an advertisement (TV or newspaper), drives to the store, purchases the glass and travels homeward with the glass. As long as the glass is used it has to be maintained by washing with soap and hot water. One day the glass is being washed and opps…the glass slips and breaks. The final destination is the landfill that was built through the use of… you guessed it, materials and fossil fuels. Each step uses materials and energy. The story, however, does not end here. At every stage of fossil fuel use, greenhouse gasses and other pollutants are released into our atmosphere causing the climate to change, acid rain, health problems, etc. Each of the problems caused by fossil fuel use, leads to the use of more materials and fossil fuel use. For example, in recent years climate change has brought about an increase in flooding and droughts. When destruction occurs, materials and fossil fuels are needed to rebuild what was destroyed.
In the 1990’s two events contributed to the increase in throughput. The first was free trade. On one hand Free Trade brought cultures together like never before through the trading of products. The increase of worldwide trade brought an increase in shipping. More ships, trucks, airplanes and ultimately fossil fuels are needed for this process. The second event was the mainstreaming of the computer. Computers enabled the whole throughput process to move along at a faster pace.
Recently there has been evidence that atmospheric carbon dioxide may lead to climate change. If this is true we should be watching how much carbon dioxide is being release. Using the throughput model one would expect the more complex our global system becomes the more carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere with the increase in fossil fuel use needed to maintain the system. This is in fact the case. Carbon dioxide released follows a geometric expansion through the years. In 1800 there were 69 metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, in 1859-5,402 metric tons, in 1900-180,000 metric tons, 1950- 692,000 metric tons, 1960-796,643, and in 1998 1,495,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide were dumped into our atmosphere.1
When fossil fuels are utilized much of the stored energy is released in the form of heat. Could this release of heat or thermo pollution be a factor in climate change? There are different theories or models to explain what is causing climate change but the bottom line is the climate is changing faster than the scientists had predicted. The Arctic’s ice is melting faster than expected. The average temperature of Antarctica is increasing and snow is building up which was completely unexpected. Water weighs eight pounds a gallon. I wonder what effect of melting huge amounts of ice into water in the North Pole while at the same time adding weight in the form of snow to the opposite end of our planet? Will it upset the balance of the Earth and affect the tilt, revolution or rotation of the Earth? Will the redistribution of weight effect fault lines and cause an increase in volcanoes and earthquakes?
Evidence of throughput, lies in the rapidly increasing insurance costs that cover natural disasters. Munich Re, a reinsurer (an insurance company that insures insurance companies) collects global data. This company records data on natural disasters such as floods storms, earthquakes, fires, etc. and has developed a criteria that categorized these disasters. The disasters with the greatest intensity are called “great disasters”. In the 1950’s there were 20 great disasters, 1970’s-47, and in 1990’s there were 86 “great disasters. This brought about an increase in economic loss. In the 1950’s about 47 billion was spent, 1970’s-122 billion, 1980’s-200 billion, and in the 1990’s- 608 billion was spent on natural disasters.2 Disasters have become more and more common and are hardly noticed unless directly affected. Where does the money come from to pay for all of this?
Throughput is accelerated to a faster pace when weapons are made and used. Factories are built to make the weapons and if used, material goods including buildings, roads, etc. are blown up. The only way to rebuild what has been blown up is to use more energy and materials. It seems we face war on many fronts. Can we afford the true costs of such a war?
After the cold winter we made progress in making the inside temperature warmer. I had to go to the hardware store to pick up some materials and while I was there I met David, Annie, and their 18-month-old boy Stokely. They had just moved into the area and were trying to build their house in a similar fashion as we were doing. Their house was barely started, they had no water and someone had just stolen most of their tools. I went home and told Lisa how good we really had it, but it was a hard sell. I told her we couldn’t dwell on everything that went wrong, but instead be thankful for what we had. Dave, Annie, and Stokely came over to our house that afternoon and it turned out that Lisa had already met Annie and Stokely at the Laundromat. Soon we became friends with the new family. It was starting to get colder and some mornings we awoke with snow on the ground. It was evident that they needed a place to stay, so they moved in with us until they could complete their house enough to live in. It’s funny how living conditions are all relative. They kept telling us that we had it made and compared to their situation I had to agree. While they were moving in I finished hooking up our hot water system to the wood stove and at last we had hot water coming out of the spigot. We all took turns holding our hands under the hot water as if it was some miraculous event. After laughing and cheering for a while we all signed up for a hot bath, that is, except Stokely. He wanted no parts of a bath until he was sitting in the tub then we couldn’t get him out.
Stokely became the center of attraction. He was just learning to talk and his conversation consisted of single words such as house, Amy (our dog), Lisa, Dave, and boots. His ability for learning new words grew day by day. He finally learned a word that we all thought was much too early to learn. He could have learned it a month or six weeks later. Stokely learned the word snow. None of us were ready; so much needed to be done before winter. Stokely, however, was so excited. Of course he wouldn’t wear his mittens and wanted to touch the snow with his bare hands. The consequences were predictable which was loud crying while at the same time not quite understanding why his hands hurt. The list of things to learn, why, they’re even longer than David and my self’s things to do before winter list.
During the days David, Annie, and Stokely would go over to their building site and come back around dinnertime. We all developed a rhythm. We would all pitch in to prepare the meal and clean up. Afterwards we would talk into the evening until it was time for bed. Soon the time had come for David, Annie and Stokely to move out. Into what you might ask? Their home was only partially insulated with no running water, but they were excited. They made their move and settled into their new house.
David came over one day to tell me about a generator for only $175. What a bargain! All it needed was points, plug wires and spark plugs and he would have electricity so that he could operate power tools. I told him that it was a great idea and he should buy it. David said it was old and who knows what else it would need. I agreed, “better not get it”. Dave continued, “but on the other hand it may be the deal of the century”. Once again I agreed, “yup, you’d better get it”.
The next night we went together to pick up the deal of the century. It was twice as big as our generator and we figured that it must be rated some where around 6000 watts. We lifted it into the truck and off we went. That night David found a small plate on the side of the generator that read 3000 watts. This big antique was only 3000 watts. Oh well, it was still enough power to run any of David’s tools. The next day he found a place that sold the parts needed, but also found out that the fuel pump was bad and new ones were no longer available. The mechanic situated the gas tank above the engine of the generator and gravity fed the gasoline to the engine. After the repairs the engine purred like a kitten. We went to pick up the generator and sure enough it started easily and ran just great. “Let’s plug in a drill and see how it works”. The drill was plugged in and turned on and it hardly turned around. David’s expression of joy changed rapidly to one of deep depression. The next step was to take it to an electrician who knew about generators. David found such a person and once again loaded it up and dropped it off. The electrician proceeded to check out the deal of the century. Since David didn’t have a phone, it was days before he found out the bad news. The generator had been an old army issued electrical source to power radar. The frequency was different and could not run electrical tools. Needless to say David was really depressed. There was only one thing to do. Lisa and I had to go over for dinner and cheer him up. It was a simple solution to the problem. We make their homestead into a radar station. Pretty soon we were all laughing. We decided to name the machine the Throughput Generator since David had put all the energy and materials into it and couldn’t get anything out of it.
Recently I moved to North Carolina and experienced my first major ice storm. When Lisa and I lived in Vermont, an ice storm hit that left up to eight inches of ice, collapsing electrical towers and lines in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Canada. Most of Montreal was without power for some time. Our electrical power came from the sun and as the ice was building up in the surrounding area we feared that the weight would ruin our solar panels. For some reason our little area was like an island. We were spared and did not get hit by the storm. In the days that followed the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) turned over the radio station to the public and people from both the United States and Canada called in with their stories or asking for help. People were devastated. Every now and then someone with solar electricity would call in and every time the story was similar. The ice had decreased the amount of electricity that was charging the batteries but once the ice melted away everything was back to normal. None of the people with solar electricity had lost electricity.
When the electricity went out in North Carolina Lisa and I couldn’t even make coffee let alone cook a meal. We felt really vulnerable and dependent on the power company. Luckily our power came on the day after the storm, but many were without electricity for some time. A few days later I read in the newspaper that the ice storm was a result of El Nino. The warm Pacific waters set up the conditions, resulting in the devastating ice storm. El Nino appears every few years and there is evidence that the time between El Ninos is decreasing. Some scientists fear that it may become a permanent condition.3 How much energy and money will be spent dealing with such changes? How much money and energy is needed to defend our electrical system? While I was moving down here, North Carolina was just ending a drought. There were some towns that came close to actually running out of water! This was happening at the same time China, Russia, Europe and parts of Europe were having floods. Now, one week after the ice storm nine people have died in California, Nevada, and Oregon due to record setting rainfalls. It seems there are more questions than answers but I’ll leave you with just one more question? Is throughput an exponential function and if it is, are the effects (flooding, droughts, hurricanes, etc.) also growing exponentially and can our children afford the costs?
1 Natalie Goldstein, Earth Almanac: An Annual Geophysical Review of the State of the Planet, (Orux Press, Westport, 2002), p. 155.
2 Linda Starke (editor), State of the World 2001: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Susstainable Society, (N.Y. and London, W. W. Norton and Company 2001), p. 125.
3 Natalie Goldstein, Earth Almanac: An Annual Geophysical Review of the State of the Planet, (Oryx Press, Westport, 2002), p. 137.