Lives In Engineering


Human history as cultural history

At present, history is taught as though power struggles were its most important aspect. Furthermore, the present teaching of history is an indoctrination in nationalism. We need to reform our teaching of history so that the emphasis will be placed on the gradual growth of human culture and knowledge, a growth to which all nations and ethnic groups have contributed.

A new freely downloadable book

I would like to announce the publication of a book, which reviews the development of engineering, from ancient times to the present. The book may be freely downloaded and circulated from the following link:

This book is part of a series on cultural history. Here are links the other books in the series that have,  until now, been completed:








Human mastery over nature

Science and engineering have combined to give humans mastery over nature. This book traces that historical development, looking mainly at the contributions of engineering. It is a success story, but human society has now reached a critical point where our mastery of nature may destroy not only nature but also ourselves.

We can take pride in human mastery over nature, but at the same time we must remember that

excessive pride was called “hubris” by the ancient Greeks, and in their dramas, it as always punished by the gods. We are not outside nature. We are part of the natural world, and our survival depends on whether we respect nature, and care for it.

Chapter 11 of this book discusses Ecological Engineering, in other words, the engineering that we need to produce urgently needed renewable energy infrastructure. Without very rapid action, uncontrollable feedback loops may take over, so that human attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change will prove to be useless. We need to act very rapidly. At the same time we can be encouraged by the fact that renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels. If governments would eliminate their direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuel giants, the urgently needed transition to renewable energy would be driven by ecomomic forces.

Society as a superorganism

In Chapter 12 we discuss human society, viewed as a superorganism, with the global economy as its digestive system. A completely isolated human being would find it as difficult to survive for a long period of time as would an isolated ant or bee or termite. Therefore it seems correct to regard human society as a superorganism. In the case of humans, the analog of the social insects’ nest is the enormous and complex material structure of civilization. It is, in fact, what we call the human economy. It consists of functioning factories, farms, homes, transportation links, water supplies, electrical networks, computer networks and much more.

Almost all of the activities of modern humans take place through the medium of these external “exosomatic” parts of our social superorganism. The terms “exosomatic” and “endosomatic” were coined by the American scientist Alfred Lotka (1880-1949). A lobster’s claw is endosomatic; it is part of the lobster’s body. The hammer used by a human is exosomatic, like a detachable claw. Lotka spoke of  “exosomatic evolution”, including in this term not only cultural evolution but also the building up of the material structures of civilization.

The economy associated with the human superorganism “eats” resources and free energy. It uses these inputs to produce local order, and finally excretes them as heat and waste. The process is closely analogous to food passing through the alimentary canal of an individual organism. The free energy and resources that are the inputs of our economy drive it just as food drives the processes of our body, but in both cases, waste products are finally excreted in a degraded form.

Almost all of the free energy that drives the human economy came originally from the sun’s radiation, the exceptions being geothermal energy which originates in the decay of radioactive substances inside the earth, and tidal energy, which has its origin in the slowing of the motions of the earth-moon system. However, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, our economy has been using the solar energy stored in of fossil fuels. These fossil fuels were formed over a period of several hundred million years. We are using them during a few hundred years, i.e., at a rate approximately a million times the rate at which they were formed.

The present rate of consumption of fossil fuels is more than 14 terawatts and, if used at the present rate, fossil fuels would last less than a century. However, because of the very serious threats posed by climate change, human society must very rapidly stop the consumption of coal, oil and natural gas if the worst consequenses of global warming are to be avoided.

We need a new economic system

Economists are not used to thinking of the long-term future.  We can see this in their attitude to economic growth, a concept which mainstream economists support with almost-religious fervor. But the unlimited growth of anything physical on a physically finite planet is a logical impossibility.  To avoid this logic,  mainstream  economists,  with  self-imposed  shortsightedness,  willfully limit their view of the future to a few decades.  However, the climate crisis is a long-term multi- generational issue. Young people throughout the world are rightly protesting that their long-term future is being blighted by today’s greed.

A few far-sighted economists outside the mainstream, for example Herman Daly, have made extensive studies of Steady-State Economics. Logic tells us that this must become the economics of the future, replacing the growth-worshiping and greed-sanctioning economics of today.

Other books and articles about  global problems are on these links

I hope that you will circulate the links in this article to friends and contacts who might be interested.

John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen. He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. His 2003 book Information Theory and Evolution set forth the view that the phenomenon of life, including its origin, evolution, as well as human cultural evolution, has its background situated in the fields of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Between 2004 and 2015 he also served as Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy. He founded the Journal of Bioenergetics and Biomembranes, and was for many years its Managing Editor. He also served as Technical Advisor to the World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (19881997). He can be reached at [email protected]. To know more about his works visit this link.




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