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October 05, 2006

The Human Algae Bloom Environment  Essays  Peak Oil

[Another blast from the past, along the same lines as the pieces on exponential growth reposted Tuesday and Wednesday. This one's also a couple of years old, but I think it's worth repeating.]

Life requires energy. Without a continual input of energy, without a continual flow of energy through them, organisms die.

This is a consequence of a general natural law (the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics) that says that if you don't put energy into a system it becomes more and more disordered. Put another way, things fall apart if you don't keep after them. Anybody who's ever tended a garden or maintained a house, a car, or a lawn — or, God forbid, a sailboat — knows this principle first-hand. The same principle applies to the maintenance of the internal order required by living organisms to sustain life.

For green plants, the energy input is sunlight. For the rest of us, it's food. We eat green plants directly, or we eat things that eat green plants, or we eat things that eat things that eat green plants. We humans also use energy that we don't consume directly as food. Such energy, however, we use indirectly to produce or acquire the necessities of life — more food, for example, or warmth, shelter, water, etc. It all takes energy.

Now, a given environment has a specific "carrying capacity" for a given kind of organism. I.e., there's a maximum size population of that organism that can be sustained in that environment. The carrying capacity is determined by whatever necessity is in shortest supply. In a desert, for example, the limiting factor might be water. Typically, the limiting factor is energy in one of its forms (e.g., food). Suddenly introducing a new source of energy can change things in a hurry, however.

There's a lake near my house. Every summer, fertilizers from surrounding lawns and farms find their way into the lake, creating an environment artificially rich in energy (from a plant's perspective, fertilizer = energy). As a result, every summer there is an explosion in the algae population, turning parts of the lake into a thick green goo. The algae experience a giddy period of runaway growth fueled by the influx of energy, but this growth increases the algae population to a level that's completely unsustainable once the fertilizers are used up. When that happens the algae population crashes, and there's a huge die-off until the population returns to a level that can be sustained without fertilizers — i.e., back to more or less its original level.

For the past two hundred years, human beings have been in the position of algae in a fertilizer-rich lake. For us, the artificial energy infusion has been in the form of an incredibly concentrated and easily acquired energy source: hydrocarbon fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas). In the 19th century, the key fuel was coal. In the 20th, it was oil. During this period, humanity has experienced a giddy population bloom like the algae's.

Hydrocarbon fuels are a one-time gift to humanity, however, and we're burning through them as fast as we can get them out of the ground. We in the industrialized nations — the US most of all — have been like a person who comes into a huge inheritance and proceeds to spend it as quickly as possible. The time comes when the inheritance runs out and one is forced to go back to living on what one can earn.

Most people, I think, attribute the "success" of the human population during the last two centuries to advances in technology, medicine, and knowledge generally. Of course, these have been contributing factors (to a large extent enabled by the energy surplus), but the most important factor has been the sudden infusion of an enormous supply of cheap, portable energy. Without this energy, or an equivalent substitute, the human population simply cannot be sustained at current levels.

Am I exaggerating energy's importance? Think of a modern city, with people stacked in high-rise buildings whose windows don't even open, utterly dependent on modern transportation/distribution systems to bring them the food they no longer grow or gather. Imagine New York City, or London, or Mexico City, or Los Angeles or any other modern metropolis if someone pulled the plug. Every so often we get a tiny glimpse of what this would mean when there's a blackout, but that only scratches the surface. Imagine that not only is electricity gone, but also gasoline, heating oil, natural gas, coal — and permanently.

The next time you're watching a film that has an aerial shot of a large city, especially one taken at night, think about the enormous flow of energy through that system — and the system's utter dependence on that energy flow. If you live in a large city, just look out your window. And then reflect on the fact that the majority of the world's people now live in cities and towns.

Moreover, the importance of hydrocarbons goes far beyond just their use as a source of energy. They are the raw material from which plastics and synthetic materials of all kinds are made, as well as pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The last thing we should be doing is setting fire to them.

I'll have more to say about the specifics of our usage of and dependence on hydrocarbons — and the possibilities, if any, for a successor energy source to replace hydrocarbons — in future posts.

For now, I just want to leave you with the mental image of the algae bloom. Pump fertilizers into the algae's environment, and the algae undergo a giddy period of explosive growth, culminating in their turning what had been a stable, balanced equilibrium into a green goo. That's what living organisms do. Give them a source of surplus energy and they gobble it up and reproduce like crazy. It's the path of least resistance.

Pump hydrocarbons into the human environment and the same thing happens. We've spent the last two centuries creating our equivalent of the green goo. And the hydrocarbons are about to start running out.

Posted by Jonathan at October 5, 2006 07:14 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.





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Posted by: sushil_yadav at October 5, 2006 10:07 PM

Sushil, Your world, where this post is coming from, is there more physical work or mental work?

Posted by: Jeff at October 6, 2006 07:07 PM