Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Economics of The Windup Girl

Noah Smith recently posted his list of science fiction for economists.  I am happy to note as an avid sci-fi fan and armchair economist, I've read almost all of those books (excepting the final two).  What surprised me most was the inclusion of my favorite science fiction novel of the last decade, The Windup Girl by the supremely talented Paolo Bacigalupi.  The first time I read it, I lost myself in enjoying the setting and characters of Bacigalupi's 22nd century Thailand.  I was curious to reread it and to think about the economics of the book, and was again surprised at how well thought out - and heartbreaking - that world is*.

To summarize, the book takes place in a post-oil world, where coal is the main remaining fossil resource and energy is provided primarily by agricultural resources.  Although it's not explicitly mentioned, I presume that the collapse of most high-energy technology has effectively prevented solar photovoltaics from existing in any quantity (because even low-quality refined silicon requires enormous amounts of high-quality energy) and that the same applies for wind power (presumably for reasons of fabrication).  Another macroscopic aspect of the world are the so-called "calorie plagues."  These are engineered diseases intentionally released into the environment by large agricultural companies around the world - more on those later.

Friday, July 19, 2013


One of my favorite blogs, The Oil Drum, is shutting down.

Noah Smith has a postmortem, which I largely agree with.

Karl Smith is the only commentator who's dipped his toes into oil, gas, and petrochemicals thus far that I have actively stopped reading because he is so misinformed it makes me angry.  His postmortem continues to spout uninformed bias about petrochemicals that I am genuinely surprised no one has bothered to correct.  To summarize: no, we cannot make ethanol from ethane.  There are proposals to make ethanol from syngas (by first making acetic acid and then hydrogenating it) from Celanese, and there are very uneconomical processes to make ethanol from ethylene (which is no longer done because ethylene used in other capacities has much more value).