Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Great Pause Week 65: New Hope Creek Journal, Part Two - Shorting the Future

 

Last week I left off my story of a young graduate student setting fish traps in a North Carolina stream, weighing the fish he captured, and estimating the oxygen use by the fish and also the ecosystems in which they lived, and concluding that sunlight would not be enough to pay for the consumer culture of the fish in New Hope Creek. … and maybe not for the greater consumer culture that humans have become accustomed to.
 
Charles Hall said from that moment he first inventoried New Hope Creek he knew what his life was going to be. From his dissertation onward, through his years as a professor, researcher, visiting lecturer, and award-winning scholar, editing, authoring and co-authoring innumerable original papers and books, his name is associated with EROI — Energy Return On Investment.

Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources among competing ends.

In a talk with friends as he hiked through Duke Forest, where his research stream is located, he said:

You’re probably pretty used to doing things in terms of money and so forth. But money by itself doesn’t have value. You can burn paper money and heat your lunch, but that’s not very valuable. I mean, it used to be silver would have some genuine value, and you can use gold in a computer or to fill your teeth, etc. But what was really important is that energy has value because money is a lien on energy. In other words society will give you, makes a promise to you, that it will use about five megajoules of energy — which is half a coffee cup of oil — to generate the good or service you want to trade one dollar for.
Let me give you an example: if you buy a bagel in Chapel Hill it doesn’t appear just by magic. What probably happened is something like this: the basic materials of a bagel are mostly carbon and roughly 7 to 14% nitrogen. While any green plant can use CO2 from the air, they cannot get nitrogen. This is a problem for plants and hence us, as plant (and animal) proteins are made largely of nitrogen. In principle, nitrogen should be easy to get, since the atmosphere is 78% nitrogen. But in practice it’s not, because the two atoms of nitrogen are held together very tightly by triple chemical bonds, (N2), that is, it is unavailable to plants because the two atoms are held together very tightly. Before 1908, nitrogen fertilizer was pretty hard to get. It took a lightning bolt or a very special bacterium, or birds would concentrate it in their excrement or guano. This worked, but there was not too much guano relative to the needs of the world’s increasing population. 
Then in 1908 a German chemist names Fritz Haber found that if he took a metal tube, filled it with air and hydrogen, then heated it while compressing it with the right catalyst, he could split the N2 and then combine it with hydrogen to make ammonia (NH3). For the first time humans had unlocked the ability to access the abundant Nitrogen in the air by using lots of energy. Carl Bosch took Haber’s ideas and ramped it up to a large scale and used the Haber process to make ammonia and from that gunpowder. Unfortunately this allowed the Germans to prolong WWI for another 4 miserable years, but it also allowed a huge increase in humanity’s ability to make food. 
Back to our bagel: So the Haber-Bosch process is used in, say, Louisiana, to make nitrogen fertilizer, which is then barged up to Nebraska using diesel, distributed to sellers and then onto the fields using diesel-powered trucks and tractors. The fields are cultivated and then harvested using more diesel, ground into flour and then shipped to North Carolina on diesel-powered trains. So then a truck takes the flour from the train to wherever you’re making a bagel in Chapel Hill. And then if you’ve got a good baker, she mixes it up with an electric blender, then bakes and boils the water to cook the bagel using natural gas or electricity. By the time you have a bagel you might have spent some large part of your dollar just for all the energy required. This is an example of how money is a lien on energy. All of these things will happen, or have happened, in anticipation of you buying a bagel! No energy, no bagel. It took roughly five megajoules of energy to do that… 
… and the big question now is whether we can do all that from renewable energy.

Of course, even the bagel explanation is a simplification of the energy subsidies we take for granted. Although amortized by millions of uses and purposes, each of those wheat, flour and bagel trucks were made from Chinese steel, Icelandic aluminum, and Brazilian rubber — hundreds of thousands of components — and traveled over roads and bridges made of more mined and manufactured materials laid in place by heavy equipment created and powered similarly, ad infinitum. The designers, builders and operators were licensed after being expensively educated in grand institutions built and supported by the energy of millions of people, protected by a high-energy consuming global military, all overseen by layers of bureaucracy to ensure standards of performance in keeping with the demands of a growing populace. Searching “life cycle analysis” and “pencil” returns 11 million Google results. 

In 1975, Hall authored a metabolic analysis of the wiggles in the Keeling Mauna Loa curve of atmospheric carbon dioxide using procedures similar to those he used in stream ecology. The annual CO2 wiggles are similar to the daily fluctuations in stream oxygen, for the same reason — sunlight falling upon plants in daily and seasonal cycles. The entire biosphere is an ecosystem, breathing in and out with the seasons just as happens in New Hope Creek. In 1981, Hall and his then student Cutler Cleveland applied the EROI formula to an examination of the oil industry. This was well before Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrère’s landmark “The End of Cheap Oil” article appeared in Scientific American in March 1998. In 1984, he joined with Cleveland, Robert Costanza and Robert Kaufmann in performing the first biophysical analysis of the US economy using a whole systems approach. That paper went through neck-rotating notice as it leapt from the back pages of Science to the front page of the Wall Street Journal. Still, notoriety is not a lien on energy the way money is. 
In the 1980s and 1990s I could not get any money for doing energy studies from the National Science Foundation or even the Department of Energy, and as the price of gasoline came down nobody was paying much attention to energy. But I had graduate students to support and could get money to do other things so I worked on tropical land use change and deforestation.
***
I believe that my team’s estimates of carbon release from tropical land use change (destruction of tropical forests) are still the first good numbers on release of carbon from tropical land use change. … I found it curious that so much attention and money was being spent on carbon when I thought the real issue was peak oil, and I still believe that, but that’s where the money (i.e.: research support) was.

Hall has now devoted the last several decades to applying the concept of EROI to a general examination of economics, in the process founding the International Society of BioPhysical Economics. BPE treats economics not as a social science, as is usually the case, but as a natural science — like fish migration in a North Carolina stream, dependent on energy inputs and material exchanges. BPE is the antithesis of conventional, i.e. neoclassical, economics, a field that cordons off and excludes from consideration pretty much all biophysical reality, i.e. everything that really matters, in favor of circular, rationalized greed — demand creates supply creates employment creates demand.

From this chart starting in 2005, showing a Covid dip in the middle, and projecting to 2030, note that few buildings or industries use coal. Coal power is already declining rapidly. Methane gas for transport or cooking has been constant and will likely increase for heating, industry, and power generation. It is still considered a “transition fuel.” Electric cars will have very little impact on oil products in transportation, which is already a very small sector compared to residential and commercial heating or industrial uses. Oil for mining and manufacturing will remain enormous — fossil’s largest use — and will still produce some 2 billion tons of CO2 in 2030. No replacement by renewable energy is presently considered even possible, despite considerable discussion of “green hydrogen.”

 
 
In a 2020 article on “Systems Ecology and Limits to Growth,” Hall writes:
The population issue still underlies all problems (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2016), oil remains precarious (Hall 2017), species are being assaulted from all angles and we are besieged with studies that suggest that civilization is in a very precarious position (e.g., Rockström et al. 2009, Ahmed 2016; Bardi 2019). It seems that while the wolf has been delayed, it remains at our doorstep, exacerbated by the relatively new arrival of potential climate change. 
***
My own perspective is that the issues and basic approach raised in the original Limits to Growth study remain extremely important, and that original study, although subject to intense criticism, remains a fairly good predictor of actual conditions some 50 years later. Perhaps the most important issue that mankind faces is whether or not, to protect our climate and the ocean’s pH, we can move away from a carbon-based global economy to one based on something else. We have chosen to build our civilization on fossil fuels but the EROI is much higher than the alternatives, and higher than we knew.

 A simple analogy to explain EROI is that if a fox spends more energy to catch rabbits than those rabbits return in calories, it will not live very long. Hall and associates showed repeatedly that once the energy return on a petroleum well, field, or province drops below some generous energy return, typically 5 to 10 barrels out for each barrel in, it will no longer be economical to get energy from that source and you can’t run a complex society on that — at least not for very long. The same goes for colonies on Mars, robot factories, unlimited prisons, Space Force, and artificial trees that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to pump deep underground or into the ocean depths. The arithmetic doesn’t work. As we sift through the array of solutions being developed for the climate emergency, it is great to have EROI in our toolkit and Charles Hall still around to “talk a lot.”

Nearly every day the mainstream media has been carrying cheery slices of technophilic futures depicting Direct Air Capture devices for CO2; algal fertilization factories that would mine crystals on Greenland to clean dead zones near Cairo; denuding hardwood forests in the Southeastern US to carry pellets to fire Drax power plants in England and Wales. The massive fossil calorie savings account we have relied upon for centuries is being replaced with a checking account refilled daily from the sun. The income and expenditures are a monumental mismatch, but the tools of classical economists obscure feedback. Moreover, demand does not create supply. Lithium, cobalt, silver, gallium, and neodymium —all needed for a brave new future of renewables — have finite and rapidly approaching resource limits if scaled up to what will be required to replace fossil energy. Why, if we know how to recover them from seawater now, the same way we pull CO2 out of air, why can’t we just…, you ask? EROI. It is a zero-sum game. Hall said:

Many people who are taking CO2 out of the atmosphere with mechanical fans and chemicals think we’re going to do that. We’re not going to do that, thank you. We’ve looked at 200 studies on removal of CO2 from the air [Sekere 2020] and found that when you include the energy you need to run the machinery, there was no net removal of CO2 and, you know, this was all Howard Odom’s idea about the importance of net energy.
***
Substitutes may cost more and more energy and usually do, because you extract the cheapest stuff first. Copper is a good example. We used to mine 40% copper ore in Butte, Montana, then we mined down to 4% purity in the 1920s and 0.4% today….with a corresponding increase in energy costs to refine it. If we’re going to go to a world of electric cars that use about three to four times more copper for each car than an internal combustion car where are we going to get the energy to mine the copper?

There is approximately 180 pounds of copper in every electric car, 45,000 tons this year just for Tesla. By 2025 there will be 5 million electric vehicles produced globally annually.


What Hall and Odum offer us is a better future lived within — not in ignorance of — limits. We are in the ecological pulse stage Odum termed descession. It is what all animals do when they sense winter coming. Scale back, not out. Gather and conserve, rather than waste and spend. Life can be better, but it must be thrifty. It is time to swim upstream now, and to make the best energy investments for our age and season. 

It was a historic week for the oil industry, potentially marking a turning point, at least for the corporate strategies of the oil majors. More curbs on the supply side added some bullish sentiment to the market, although the impacts on the fundamentals are not necessarily going to unfold in the near term. But in the wake of the enormous legal and corporate governance blows to the oil majors, more than a few analysts spoke about growing odds of a supply crunch in the years ahead. Royal Dutch Shell lost a landmark legal case in a Dutch court, which, if it stands, will require 45% cuts in GHG emissions by 2030. The case is seen as a warning sign for the rest of the oil industry, signaling legal exposure to emissions.

— The Energy Bulletin, June 1 2021

References

Ahmed, N.M., 2016. Failing states, collapsing systems: biophysical triggers of political violence. Springer.

Bardi, U., Falsini, S. and Perissi, I., 2019. Toward a general theory of societal collapse: a biophysical examination of Tainter’s model of the diminishing returns of complexity. BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, 4(1), p.3.

Cleveland CJ, Costanza R, Hall CAS, Kaufmann R (1984) Energy and the United States economy: a biophysical perspective. Science 225:890–897 

Hall CAS (1972) Migration and metabolism in a temperate stream ecosystem. Ecology 53(4):585–604

Hall CAS, Cleveland CJ (1981) Petroleum drilling and production in the United States: yield per effort and net energy analysis. Science 211:576–579 

Hall, CAS (2021) Taped conversation while walking New Hope Creek with Tom Heffner and our wives and dog, April, 2021

Purwaningsih, R. (2020) Eco-Efficiency of Pencil Preduction Using Life Cycle Assessment to Increase the Manufacture Sustainability Jurnal Teknik Industri 22(1):47–54 DOI:10.9744/jti.22.1.47–52

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E.F., Lenton, T.M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H.J. and Nykvist, B., 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), pp.472–475

Sekera, J. and Lichtenberger, A., 2020. Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need. Biophysical Economics and Sustainability, 5(3), pp.1–28.

Watts, J., “Johan Rockström: ‘We need bankers as well as activists… we have 10 years to cut emissions by half’,” The Guardian 29 May 2021

_________________________

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works:

  1. Open the Amazon app on your phone
  2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features
  3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity
  4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Great Pause Week 64: New Hope Creek Journal, Part One - Wading Back in Time

"Renewable energy is unlikely to support civilization at its present scale. We know this by looking at fish in a mountain stream."

 

In a frantic search for some way out of the climate crisis, governments, scientists and creators are throwing time, money, and people at carbon dioxide removal by natural and artificial means. Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Johan Rockström says quite frankly, “there is no plausible chance of an absolute zero landing by 2050.” The best we can hope for is a rapid decarbonization of the economy — by half every decade — followed by Rosie the Riveter-style mass-production of carbon dioxide removal devices. “That is the pace and that is non-negotiable.” 

As we race into this brave new world, we need to be mindful that every misstep, every wasted effort, every wrong turn, takes us away from the task, cuts into its unrelenting schedule, steals non-replaceable time, and should be avoided. There is a neologism (actually an acronym) that grounds our decision tree. The decisive expression is “EROI.”

In 1968 Charles Hall was trying to come up with a topic for his doctoral dissertation.

Most of us were focused on ecology with a small ‘e,’ that is, on trying to understand how nature operated. This was before the first Earth Day, and usually when you were talking up some young lady at a party you had to explain what the word ‘ecology’ meant.

Hall, who already had earned his masters in ecology at Penn State, chose to work under the mentorship of Howard T. Odum at the University of North Carolina. He describes his first day with Odum when the two went on an errand to a hardware store:

While we were waiting for a sales person, H.T. was looking at some domestic items. His eyes came to rest on a wide goldfish bowl, a small fan and a record player turntable. He said to me (I am not kidding!): “Look at this, we can make a model of the Gulf Stream. He put the goldfish bowl on the record player turntable, turned on the fan to blow across it making a current in the goldfish bowl, and then he said “now we have to add the coriollis force” and gave the record player a little spin to the right. Sure enough, something like the jet stream began flowing in the goldfish bowl, and the goldfish had to start swimming to keep his place.” Fascinated, I said to myself: ‘Well this is not going to be the same as my education so far! I think I am going to like this.’

In a textbook published in 2020, Hall put this period of his higher education into the 1967–71 social context:

While we were in graduate school, there was an explosion of information and predictions about the environmental problems and the degrading state of the Earth, including Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb and the original renditions of The Limits to Growth as well as general environmental concerns expressed by George Woodwell, Kenneth Watt, Garrett Hardin, and others which could not help but get the attention of graduate students in ecology. 
***
Concepts such as “limits” and “carrying capacity” were transferred from ecology to predicting the human condition. One had the sense that ecology was going to take its rightful place among the very most important disciplines, and that systems ecology was going to be leading the effort. Along with the hippies of the time, ecology students aspired to “change the world.”

Odum had begun shifting from, as Hall put it, “studies of natural ecosystems (streams, estuaries, coral reefs, tropical forests) to human-dominated systems (cities, sewage lagoons, and industrial society generally), probably catalyzed by watching the great petroleum towers near Houston increasingly towering over the estuaries in which he was measuring biological energy flow with “diurnal” (technically diel) analyses of oxygen.”

I think for him the new petroleum–dominated systems were just another ecosystem, although one with more intensive infrastructure and energy flow. Oyster reefs and cities were similar for him, both just centers of consumption of energy, each requiring large areas of production elsewhere whose products had to be carried in by external “energy subsidies,” tides in the case of one and oil in the case of the other. 

Hall knew that he wanted a stream to study, and he imagined that with time, care, and the appropriate tools, he might be able to completely inventory its energy flows, or as he later described it. “looking at nature… in its actuality and complexity and in its biotic and abiotic entirety.” He just needed a suitable test site to show it could be done. Hiking with friends back to New Hope Creek, where he undertook his dissertation research, he recorded his memories from 50 years ago:

I traveled all around this region with Bob Kelly, but to my horror all the streams were obviously polluted. I wasn’t interested in pollution, I wanted to study nature. And so, Bob said the place you want is New Hope Creek. It was in the middle of protected Duke Forest and not readily accessible. He told me how to get in there and I remember very clearly coming up to a bluff like that we are walking on, and looking down and seeing beautiful New Hope Creek and saying “This is the place” — like what Brigham Young said when he saw the valley that became Salt Lake City.
You know? It was just reminiscent of what a river ought to look like, maybe with a southern tinge to it. But then I talked a lot — I talk a lot still — and I think Odum may have thought I was more show than go. So I went out and I collected six weeks of data, in the stream, of oxygen readings and fish data without saying a thing to him.
 
And, just to tell you about the fish: I built the weir — I’m familiar with weirs being from New England — just put hardware cloth across there. I was the best pop-riveter there ever was. I made all these cages that would fit into the weir. The first day that I went out there, I can remember pulling out the cage and looking in there, and there was about 15 or 20 fish, big ones, in the upstream weir, and maybe a similar number, but smaller size, in the downstream weir. And I weighed every one of them individually. And I said, that day, ‘I’ve got a dissertation!’ When I showed my first 6 weeks data to Odum he said little, but within a week I was funded for that summer and then my entire dissertation. He liked results.
My results after two and a half years were the same that I got on that first day. In other words, the pattern was repeated day after day. Big fish were going upstream, little fish were coming downstream. In time I put tags on most of the fish but caught surprisingly few at the wooden bridge although the pattern was the same. I had some weirs upstream too I found the same pattern, but with different fish, a little bit mysterious still. Then I stayed up all night taking oxygen samples.

Hall’s taped conversation on a friend’s iPhone lost fidelity here, but he was kind enough to send me the gist of what he had said.

And what you find is that during the daytime the oxygen increases due to photosynthesis. And at night, the oxygen goes down due to no photosynthesis. In the daytime the oxygen increase is a net increase, because oxygen is being simultaneously pulled down by the respiration of the ecosystem. Respiration means using oxygen to burn organic fuels. We’re respiring right now — we’re using oxygen to burn fuels from our last meal or last several meals within our bloodstream or the sugars stored in our liver or whatever. And so the whole stream too has a metabolism — we call it ecosystem metabolism. And, in New Hope Creek you have about about twice as much respiration as there is energy supplied from photosynthesis, indicating that there’s twice as much energy that is being used as produced from sunlight. 
I talked a lot — I talk a lot still — and I think Odum may have thought I was more show than go.
Where is that additional energy coming from? From the forest, as leaves and insects falling into the stream. As you go upstream, the proportional amount added from the forest increases…. Downstream the stream widens where sunlight can get in and you get more photosynthesis proportionally, although the forest input remains high. So you find as you went upstream the whole ecosystem is changing. What you’re having is the same amount of energy comes in per square meter, but it gets used in less ecosystem depth. So you have a concentration of energy resources, which I hypothesized was a greater energy base for the fish.
***
So I went into Odum and I showed him my data. The oxygen went up in the day because plants catch sunlight, and it went down at night. The system uses energy. Nature is a balance of taking energy from the sun and using it, and it is in rough balance.
Except New Hope Creek was not. About half the energy that was running this stream was coming from the forest, from the leaves and bugs falling in. Someone at Duke had measured them independently and this gave the same number in calories that I had figured out, from the oxygen, used above the amount produced. So we can say that the stream energy budget is subsidized by the forest. 
I was originally interested in all of this and in fish migration in terms of fish moving phosphorus. In the world’s geochemical cycles phosphorus is rare and therefore limiting. With phosphorus rare, it is very valuable. You (and the fish) have phosphorus in your bones, and in something called ATP — adenosine triphosphate — which is the little cellular energy storage batteries in yourself, and your DNA has phosphorus as part of its structural foundation. Life is far more dependent on phosphorus than it should be, given its rareness in nature. That’s why phosphorus is an important agricultural fertilizer.
***
It turned out that phosphorus was not the big deal of my dissertation — it was energy. From this I derived the concept of Energy Return On Investment (EROI) — how much energy does a fish use in migration and how much does it gain from being in areas of higher productivity? And why would they use upstream areas and downstream areas for different things in their life cycle? The concept works beautifully in New Hope Creek and it works even better for salmon in the Pacific Ocean.

What Hall discovered was that the sunlight received and flora of the stream could not support the population of fish without some external subsidy. That subsidy came in the form of leaves and insects that fell from the forest. Big fish swam upstream to lay their eggs into shallow environments with concentrated energy resources and collect that subsidy, even though they had to expend energy to swim against the current. Little fish swam downstream to be in deeper, less stressful environments with easier escape from predators until they, too, made the migration.

Next week I will continue this story and show how it relates to the work we must all undertake in the years to come. For now it is enough when you are shopping for whatever it is you feel the need to shop for, you think of fish moving in a stream from pool to pool. Sunlight probably won’t be enough to pay for your shopping. You will need some insects and leaves, too (for humans it comes in the form of fossil sunlight) or you will have to cut back your shopping.

If you try to tell people that renewable energy in all its many forms is unlikely to support global civilization at its present scale, never mind colonization of other worlds, many — probably the majority — will take the opposite side of that argument. I need a few thousand more words to explain why contraction is inevitable, so please read Part 2 — Shorting the Future.

References

Cleveland CJ, Costanza R, Hall CAS, Kaufmann R (1984) Energy and the United States economy: a biophysical perspective. Science 225:890–897
 
Ehrlich P (1960) The Population Bomb. Balantine Books

Ehrlich P, Ehrlich A (2016) Population, resources, and the faith-based economy: the situation in 2016. Biophys Econ Res Qual 1:1–9

Forrester J (1971) The counterintuitive nature of social systems. Technology Today, Cambridge, MA 

Hagen J (1992) An Entangled Bank: The Origins of Ecosystem Ecology. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick

Hall, CAS (1972) Migration and metabolism in a temperate stream ecosystem. Ecology 53(4):585–604

Hall, CAS (2017) Energy Return on Investment: A unifying principle for biology, Economics and sustainability (Springer)

Hall, CAS (2018) Energy and the Wealth of Nations: An introduction to BioPhysical Economics (2nd Edition) with Kent A. Klitgaard (Springer)

Hall, CAS (2021) Taped conversation while walking New Hope Creek with Tom Heffner and our wives and dog, April, 2021

LeClerc, G. and CAS Hall. (eds) (2007) Making World Development Work: Scientific alternatives to neoclassical economic theory. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 2007

Swaney, Dennis P., and Charles AS Hall. “Odum in Texas: a brief review of HT Odum’s Texas Bays studies.” Ecological modelling 178, no. 1–2 (2004): 59–63

Watts, J., “Johan Rockström: ‘We need bankers as well as activists… we have 10 years to cut emissions by half’,” The Guardian 29 May 2021

____________________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are up-sizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works: 

  1. Open the Amazon app on your phone
  2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features
  3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity
  4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Great Pause Week 63: Mr. Anderson's Warning

"Our recipes for a prosperous future are a prediction of what society will be forced to consider."

Recently I had the good fortune to listen in on an interview with one of my favorite climate scientists, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndell Centre. I have often quoted Anderson in these pages and I profiled him in my books, The Paris Agreement (2015) and Burn: Igniting a New Carbon Drawdown Economy to End the Climate Crisis (2019). In this interview of May 13, 2021, Anderson brought home these salient points:

The political challenge is an order of magnitude different than from what most people would interpret from The Paris Agreement.
***
If you want to hit the 1.5°C target, the world would need to stop emitting any CO2 from about 2029…. You have to draw a straight line from 2022 to 2029 and eliminate all CO2 emissions — that would just barely keep you in the budget.
***
I think all of climate change pushes our imagination to the extreme so the one thing I will say is that there are no non-radical futures. The future is radically different from the present either because we make huge, rapid shifts in reducing our emissions with profound shifts in our society, or we hang onto the status quo for a few more years whilst we lock in huge shifts from the impacts of climate change. So the future is radically different — there is no neat way around that.
***
I can’t see any way we can do it by 2029. But I think we could hold to 2 degrees of warming, which is deeply depressing because that’s huge levels of impacts. … We just had a paper last year where we actually unpacked what would (attaining) 2 degrees C look like… and for the wealthier parts of the world they’d need to be at zero CO2 by somewhere around 2035. Now that might be a bit later for some of the less wealthy countries in that group. If you‘re Poland or somewhere like that it might take a bit longer. If you’re Switzerland or Luxembourg or some of the wealthier parts you’d be a bit earlier than that… But that is only if you start now. Because it is a cumulative problem, every year we choose to fail, or every year our reduction rates aren’t the rates that are necessary, then the end date comes closer to us.
If we start in the wealthier part of the world, we’d need 10 percent reductions every single year starting from now. But given that it takes us 2 or 3 years to reach 10 percent, even if we were serious about it, which we’re not, because our emissions are so high in the near term, the 2 or 3 years it takes us to get to 10 percent actually means you need to aim more likely at 20 percent per year by 2030 to get to zero by 2035. 
***
For the poorer parts of the world there is about a 15 year lag for them to get to zero emissions… by about 2050. But they will still need to peak their emissions by about 2025. Now, no-one is talking about that. China is saying, “Well we might peak by 2030,” India by 2050.
***
Even Covid was only 6 to 7 percent. You would need a couple of those per year…. It is only a metaphor and like most metaphors it quickly falls apart. But it does show us that we can make rapid changes in our society if they are necessary.

We have been cautiously but definitively informed by numerous scientific conferences and publications now that both of the following statements are true:

  1. In the business as usual scenario presently being followed, Earth is on track to a global average temperature increase of 3.7 to 6.9 degrees C by the end of the present century. 
  2. At any temperature above 3 degrees, no organized human civilization will be possible. Agriculture will not work. Our sweat glands will not cool us outdoors (they fail above 40 to 50°C, depending on individuals). Superstorms will wreak havoc on wind farms, solar arrays, and hydroelectric dams. Fires and floods will take down our cities.

“There is no suggestion that all humans would die and all life would go off the planet,” Anderson said, “and there is no suggestion that that would be the case, but it would be a devastatingly different world than where we are today and it also wouldn’t be stable.” 

There might be no stopping at 4°C. It looks like that if you head up into that temperature that you are starting to kick in lots more feedbacks. Four degrees is a temperature threshold that you are passing through as you head towards some new stabilization at a much higher level. Anyway, at every level it is something we should be avoiding.

We are into the third phase of Odum’s pulsing cycle, which he termed, “descession.” Now the system goes through a phase shift. Instead of maximizing growth, it adapts to resource limits by optimizing. Waste is converted to circularity. “To sustain the emergy per person requires rapid decrease in population” (as we are seeing). Reduced resources and negative factors of crowding cause the population to decline until resources begin to accumulate again.

Population triggers feedbacks when it becomes large. One feedback is that wealth accumulation allows gradual liberation of some oppressed classes — wage slaves, immigrants, women, minorities — who then have aspirations to wealth and power that are best furthered with fewer children. Another is the innate desire for space and a modicum of privacy, a yearning to touch and be part of the natural world, and having fewer children is viewed as a means to escape one’s crowded, impersonal conditions. 

H.T. Odum advised that the hair shirt approach — asking people to change their diets and drive or fly less — is both unnecessary and counterproductive. He thought that reducing luxuries and closing the wealth gap was the best course.

To simply limit resource use is not a useful policy since it goes against the maximum empower principle of self-organization, which dictates the maximization of energy and resource flows through all hierarchical levels of a system for it to be sustainable. But limiting luxury and wasteful uses allows resources to go into productive functions and is adaptive. Thus, measures to limit unnecessary horsepower stimulate the economy, whereas taxing or limiting useful resource uses is not a viable option, since it forces the system to decrease its resource base, affecting use and misuse. 

For Odum, the megalithic, petroleum–dominated, capitalist systems were just another ecosystem but with greater infrastructure investment and energy throughput. He urged societies to reorganize for descent, which with adequate preparation could be just as prosperous as ascent. He envisioned that a shift in the nature of capitalism would be part of that reorganization.

When there are resources to develop, rapid competitive growth of a few enterprises prevails. In ecosystems, this is called eutrophic overgrowth by weeds. In the economy, this is growth capitalism. Those developments with investment loans outgrow those without the more rapid start. 
***
During growth, capital earns high interest as enterprises pay back loans and dividends. People with money have large incomes for which they did no work for the system. After growth, unearned income decreases. A system is more efficient if money is paid for real work. 

He concluded:

If the principles (emergy, maximum empower, pulsing paradigm) are correct and we interpret their application correctly, then our recipes for a prosperous future are a prediction of what society will be forced to consider. If civilization is to progress, it has to learn to advocate the patterns that these principles predict. In the process, a growth culture will be able to change smoothly into a culture of descent. However, history records many systems that crashed instead. Showing a good way down is a call for everyone to think ahead and plan. 

Family planning is merely part of the process as we round the bend at the Anthropocene apogee and start to progress towards something resembling the Holocene we left. It will not be that, it will be different, but these coming decades will take us there as we learn to steward rather than spend, gather rather than disperse, and contract rather than expand. The alternative is unthinkable.

As it is, we probably went further in this end of the cycle than we should have and needed to be cornering much sooner. The wealth we squandered was biodiversity, something that takes not centuries to recover, like soils and forests, but millions of years. We need to curtail that profligacy quickly and save what remains.

 


Last week the Biden Adminstration took a remarkable step that very few noticed. The President issued an executive order directing all agencies of government to conduct a sweeping climate risk assessment. While that may seem common sense — something many banks and insurance companies already do — it is actually a first step towards Odum’s maxim of pricing-in true costs. The Federal Government’s “climate risk exposure” will be assigned a dollar figure for the first time, and in fine detail.

While the opposition party has so far been quiet about this, it is unlikely their major donors in the coal and gas states will let it go unnoticed. Last week, when the International Energy Agency flexed its muscles on climate change, the industry pushed back:

No new oil and natural gas fields are needed in the net-zero pathway.”
 — Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency
 
 [The above statement] “…not only runs entirely contrary to the main reason that the IEA was founded, namely, to promote secure and affordable energy supplies to foster economic growth, but it also seems to forget the pivotal role hydrocarbons, mainly oil and gas, play in the global economy.”
 — Cyril Widdershoven, international consultant and commentator, on Oilprice.com

Widdershoven will never grok the pulsing cycles of ecosystems. He is not paid to. But the rest of us can.

References

Bardi, Ugo, The Seneca Effect, New York: Springer Publishing (2017).

Bardi, Ugo, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi. “Toward a general theory of societal collapse: a biophysical examination of Tainter’s model of the diminishing returns of complexity.” BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality 4, no. 1 (2019): 3.

Catton Jr, William R. Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse: Humanity’s Impending Impasse. Xlibris Corporation, 2009.

Odum, Howard T., and Elisabeth C. Odum. “The prosperous way down.” Energy 31, no. 1 (2006): 21–32.

Schröder, Enno, and Servaas Storm. “Economic Growth and Carbon Emissions: The Road to “Hothouse Earth” is Paved with Good Intentions.” International Journal of Political Economy 49, no. 2 (2020): 153–173.

Steffen, Will, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes et al. “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252–8259.

Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies. London: Cambridge University Press (1988).

_________________________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

 Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works: 

  1. Open the Amazon app on your phone 
  2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features 
  3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity 
  4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Great Pause Week 62: A Survivable Change of Fortune

"Pulsing on each scale is an accumulating build up of products converged to centers, followed by descent with sharp, short diverging dispersal."

“If, when they came out of camp, they found hostility and their house vandalized, their tenancy cancelled, then this, despite its evidently traumatic nature, was a survivable change of fortune.”

 — Simon Winchester, speaking of the Japanese internment experience during WWII, in Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World, chapter 4 (2021).

 


In May 2000, the distinguished ecological systems thinker Howard T. Odum presented a paper at the international workshop, “Advances in Energy Studies,” in Porto Venere, Italy, that turned out to be the final contribution of his life. Two years after he died, it was published in the scientific journal Energy as “The Prosperous Way Down.” The paper has since influenced countless students of ecosystem ecology and general systems theory and inclined more than a few to become preppers. In that final paper, Odum laid out a number of his driving theories, fixed our position on the long cycle of history, and gave some advice about what he thought we needed to be doing, urgently.

It is entirely forgivable that he got a number of things wrong, because it is only now, 20 years later, that we know more of things he could only speculate about, but in broad stroke he got both the problem and its solution correct, as will become clearer as this century progresses.

Odum said that ecosystems follow the laws of thermodynamics. In any system there “is an alternation between slow production, growth and succession followed by a pulse of consumption, descent and decession. Pulsing on each scale is an accumulating build up of products converged to centers, followed by descent with sharp, short diverging dispersal.”

There are four main stages of the pulsing cycle: 

  • growth on abundant available resources, with sharp increases in a system’s population, structure, and assets, based on low-efficiency and high-competition (capitalism and monopolistic overgrowth); 
  • climax and transition, when the system reaches the maximum size allowed by the available resources, increases efficiency, develops collaborative competition patterns, and prepares for descent by storing information; 
  • descent, with adaptations to less resources available, a decrease in population and assets, an increase in recycling patterns, and a transmission of information in a way that minimizes losses; 
  • low-energy restoration, with no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a new cycle ahead. 

Odum compared where we are now to the peak of the Roman Empire; a climax and transition. He said it took one thousand years for the whole cycle to run and about 300 years for the descent phase, which is known in systems theory as the Seneca effect, after the Roman psychohistorian who first forecast the pattern. Odum reminded his readers that Joseph Tainter in his Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) provided many examples of “once-proud and enormous civilizations that remain only as stones under desert sands or the vegetation of jungles.” 

Odum also understood the significance of data storage, perhaps the defining technology of our time:

When essential information is broadly shared on a large scale, it becomes a long-lasting, unifying mechanism. Information sharing can replace the restrictive information competition of growth capitalism. Television and the internet have the capability of changing the global organization away from military territorialism. If global ethics for equitable trade and sharing information can prevail, global empower and peace can be protected by the information mutualism that maximizes empower. The dangerous alternative is fragmenting societies warring for residual resources. 
The problem here is that the global sharing of information takes substantial resources to develop. It may be restricted to those ideals that are important at the global level. Examples of important messages that need to be shared globally are: protecting the purity of the global atmosphere, maintaining cordiality and trade between neighboring countries that are culturally different, and sharing technologies that are useful anywhere. 
It has been called a paradox that there is a spread of global information and economics and at the same time an intensification of separate efforts by local groups to hold on to their special languages, heritages, cultures, arts, and religions. There is no paradox, just properties of a developing hierarchy in which people can be effective by being different about what is small scale but united about what is large scale. 

Biological architecture — indeed evolutionary biology — entails information management. The genetic code is often called a library for good reason. We can micro-forensically trace our origins back to the conjoining of single cell organisms. Whenever our bodies retrieve a genetic “book,” our epigenome picks which chapter to read. 

Information seems ethereal and remote from biological and industrial processes. But because information requires many energy transformations, there are limits to the amount sustainable. Even when isolated in compact form, information requires some form of energy as a carrier, such as that in the DNA of seeds, the paper of books, the electromagnetic waves of radio transmission, or the neuroelectrical processes of the brain. Significant resources are needed to copy, store, disseminate and test the existing information, in order to support patterns for generation of new information. 
Therefore, information capacity declines with diminishing resources. Also, information loses utility and retrievability as it accumulates. Information may be characterized as something that requires fewer resources to save and copy than to make anew. Like the brain, society has to select and condense the clutter of short-term memory into fewer items of long-term memory. The universities are the main institutions with this capability, if enough resources (emergy) are provided to this purpose. 

The reservoirs of data storage may be in the ivory towers of Academia today but after the burning of the Library of Alexandria they came to reside in the palaces of Constantinople and Cairo and later, the monasteries of medieval Europe and Tibet. Safety of the collection was a more important consideration than whether it was being used. While woodcuts, paper and papyrus were no match for the flames set by Caesar in 48 BCE that consumed the Alexandrian library — incinerating nearly the entire corpus of Greek literature and half a million other records of antiquity, with many of the surviving texts later destroyed by Christian zealots in 391 AD — today we are busily translating the accumulated knowledge of the ages to ones and zeros stored on magnetic surfaces with known half-lives measured in years, not decades, as long as the gigabytes can be periodically renewed by gigawatts.

As we peer over the edge of a Seneca cliff for a reason Odum had not grasped but which I will presently get to, frantic information gathering surrounds us. Consider recent announcements from Google and Apple about the information ecosystems they are building in the VR/AR space. The latest headsets have external cameras that augment reality but also scan rooms using LIDAR 3-D imaging while simultaneously downloading information from your retinas to record for posterity your age, sex, race, diet, wellness, genetic lineage, education, ADHD, where you grew up, mental stability, drug use, experiences, PTSD, likes and dislikes, fears and hopes. 

What Facebook gathers from your clicks and posts is child’s play compared to Google’s Library of Alexandria. As autonomous robot cars, drones and eyewear ubiquitously LIDAR-scan not just the exteriors of buildings but their interiors and occupants, a model of the present transfers to coded ones and zeros stored in data vaults in the Dalles of the Columbia River powered by increasingly torrential rains or in football-field-sized deep undersea habitats powered by ocean currents derived from the spin of the Earth as it circumnavigates its star. Information thus gathered requires “fewer resources to save and copy than to make anew” but is nonetheless exceedingly fragile

Later this year it will be likely that someone on Instagram or TikTok in Kuala Lumpur will happen upon some product video posted by an influencer they follow, click a button on their watch or phone screen, and within an hour or two that product will arrive at their door. In a few more years that item might be a digital wearable, coded as an NFT, delivered instantly, but which can only be viewed with Apple iContact lenses. If you don’t own those lenses, the Emperor has no clothes. 

This is how the storage of information is being paid for — how emergy is being allocated — but it is also what a peak is like — in Roman times captives of conquest chained to yokes, serving as handmaidens, or dying in amphitheaters for the entertainment of patricians; in our times battlebots, robot go-fers, and smart homes — armies of unseen energy cyberslaves working tirelessly to make our inexhaustible desires possible. Normalcy and confirmation biases have us wired to cling to this pleasant moment and reject all contrary expectations. Odum predicted that as the nonrenewable fossil spigot slowed to a drip, our robots would tire, their ability to recharge compromised. Instead, the robots are building their own solar power systems for shrinking mills per watt, a la the Waldo F. Jones’ Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph

Still, do not imagine any of this can be saved in Default World. The math is uncompromising. We can only electrify so much. We can only substitute so much. After that there must be reduction.

Odum well understood the threat of climate change, but he did not conceive that only a decade after he died the climate emergency would supplant peak oil as the driver of the transition from growth capitalism to rapid degrowth in the fashion foretold by Seneca. Our acquisition of knowledge of climate change has outpaced even our development of technology to squeeze oil from rocks in order to sustain the headlong growth and waste part of the cycle. Climate scientists won their race with petroleum engineers, they just don’t know it yet.

Where Odum got it wrong, besides imagining that cessation of fossil pollution would arrest the climate juggernaut, was in not fully appreciating the diabolic power of modern monetary theory to enable Ponzi schemes like the Bakkan, Eagle Ford, and similar gas fracking grifts, or in Moores Law migrating from computer chips to solar cells, such that in Odum’s time an installed watt of PV power might have cost around $100 compared with one cent today (and likely one-tenth that, one mill, in just a few years). He could not have foreseen that direct solar and wind electricity would rapidly substitute as baseload for both fossil fuels and nuclear power, or that “peak oil” (the crash following depletion of energy) would be receding as a popular meme. Oil, coal and gas have become stranded assets for their owners, who are being told, not very nicely, they must shut themselves down now, or else.

In a recent interview, one of the race’s unheralded victors, the Tyndell Centre’s Kevin Anderson, attempted to place a timeline on the descent phase of civilization, saying:

If you want to hit the 1.5°C target, the world would need to stop emitting any CO2 from about 2029…. You have to draw a straight line from 2022 to 2029 and eliminate all CO2 emissions — that would just barely keep you in the budget.
***
If we start in the wealthier part of the world, we’d need 10 percent reductions every single year starting from now. But given that it takes us 2 or 3 years to reach 10 percent, even if we were serious about it, which we’re not, because our emissions are so high in the near term, the 2 or 3 years it takes us to get to 10 percent actually means you need to aim more likely at 20 percent per year by 2030 to get to zero by 2035. 

The curtailment of the global economy in 2020 from the effects of the Covid pandemic was in the 6 to 7 percent range. So, we would need about two Covids per year for the next 10 years or so (probably to the end of the century) just to hold to 1.5 degrees above normal. And of course, 1.5 degrees above normal would be truly catastrophic, as we can imagine just from considering what has been happening from the effects of less than a one degree rise to 2020. 

At any temperature above 3 degrees, no organized human civilization would be possible. We would retreat to our caves. Agriculture will not work. Our sweat glands will not cool us outdoors. Superstorms will wreak havoc on wind farms, solar arrays, and hydroelectric dams. Fires and floods will take down our cities. Unaltered, present business as usual is on track to take us past 3 degrees in the second half of this century.

Storing information seems like a good thing to be doing. So are a decrease in population and assets, an increase in recycling patterns, no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a new cycle ahead. Good advice, H.T.. Thanks.

References:

Bardi, Ugo, The Seneca Effect, New York: Springer Publishing (2017).

Bardi, Ugo, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi. “Toward a general theory of societal collapse: a biophysical examination of Tainter’s model of the diminishing returns of complexity.” BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality 4, no. 1 (2019): 3. 

Odum, Howard T., and Elisabeth C. Odum. “The prosperous way down.” Energy 31, no. 1 (2006): 21–32.

Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies. London: Cambridge University Press (1988).

_________________________

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works: 
1. Open the Amazon app on your phone 
2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features 
3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity 
4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Great Pause Week 61: Swallow the Doctor

"The first successful transubstantiation is estimated to happen around 2035. After that we will each be able to back ourselves up to the cloud, if we can afford the data plan."

 

Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis, May 5, 2021 X-Prize Launch


Near the start of World War II, Robert A. Heinlein published a story in Astounding Science Fiction called “Waldo.” In this fantasy, Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones was born too weak to even hold his head up or grasp a spoon. Perhaps he was also on the spectrum. He channeled his mind into the “Waldo F. Jones’ Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph,” a prosthetic glove that directed a much more powerful mechanical hand. Waldo SRP hands could be different sizes, either huge for building construction or microscopic for micro-manipulation.

Seventeen years later, a former graduate student of U-Cal physicist Richard Feynman came to his mentor with an interesting idea. Feynman revealed the idea in the annual lecture at the American Physical Society meeting that year. As a thought experiment, he proposed a Waldo-like manipulator hand that could build one-quarter scale machine tools and a controller to operate them. This set of small tools would then be used by the new controller to build one-sixteenth-scale controllers and tools, and so forth. Repeat that process 40 times and you are at a one billionth scale, running perhaps a billion tiny factories to produce still smaller tools. Ninety steps and you are at a septillionth.

In his 1986 book, Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler postulated beyond machine tools to molecular computers and cell repair robots circulating through the bloodstream. Here, take this pill. Swallow the doctor. 

In The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicted that such medical nanorobotics might completely remedy the effects of aging by 2030.

Recently I was in Clubhouse, a chatroom app, listening to a discussion about epigenetics when one of the British participants opined that he would rather live a few years well than a great many years more. To which the moderator replied, “Why choose?”

I can think of why. So could Thomas Malthus, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, and the framers of the UN Convention on Biodiversity. Quoting a recent Ehrlich paper:

Over 70% of all people currently live in countries that run a biocapacity deficit while also having less than world-average income, excluding them from compensating their biocapacity deficit….

And yet, despite this ghastly arithmetic (‘ghastly’ being the adjective chosen by the authors to include in the title of the paper), the world is still marching in singularity file down a Kurzweilian primrose path, assuming that if we have a problem, sooner than popular demand requires, there will be an app for that.

Although population-connected climate change will worsen human mortality, morbidity, development, cognition, agricultural yields, and conflicts, there is no way — ethically or otherwise (barring extreme and unprecedented increases in human mortality) — to avoid rising human numbers and the accompanying overconsumption.

 — Bradshaw et al, Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future (2021)

Those who wish to achieve longer lives themselves cite not only nanomedicine, but rapid breakthroughs in tissue rejuvenation, stem cells, regenerative medicine, molecular repair, gene therapy, telomere generating pharmaceuticals, organ replacement, bionic prosthetics, and xenotransplantations. Many speculate, if not promise, that surprises even more game-changing may eventually enable humans to have indefinite lifespans or even revert to the bodies of teenagers. Possible ramifications are consigned to the wax-sealed echo chambers of bickering bioethicists.

 

Hormone treatments to reverse the aging process already earn about $50 billion per year. Some clinics currently offer injection of blood products from young donors. The promises of the treatment, none of which have been demonstrated, include a longer life, darker hair, better memory, better sleep, and a cure for Alzheimer’s. Billionaire backers include Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Peter Thiel (former PayPal CEO), Larry Page (co-founder of Google), and Peter Diamandis (Singularity University and the X-Prize). You may have seen it parodied in an episode of Silicon Valley, the HBO series, but two clinics in California actually offer $8,000 injections of plasma extracted from the blood of young people. A 2013 Pew Research poll in the United States found that 38% of Americans would want life extension treatments for themselves, and 68% believed most people would want it if offered the choice. Religious persuasion, according to the poll, does not enter into the decision.

Leon Kass, chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, called these attitudes “an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity.” On the other side, biogerontologist Aubrey De Grey suggested that the therapy could postpone or eliminate menopause, allowing women to space out their pregnancies over more years and thus decreasing the yearly population growth rate.

We have already found ways to increase the lifespan of microscopic nematode worms and yeasts by 10-fold, although 2009 paper cautioned: 

“Extrapolation from worms to mammals is risky at best, and it cannot be assumed that interventions will result in comparable life extension factors. Longevity gains from dietary restriction, or from mutations studied previously, yield smaller benefits to Drosophila than to nematodes, and smaller still to mammals. This is not unexpected, since mammals have evolved to live many times the worm’s lifespan, and humans live nearly twice as long as the next longest-lived primate. From an evolutionary perspective, mammals and their ancestors have already undergone several hundred million years of natural selection favoring traits that could directly or indirectly favor increased longevity….” 

The main goal of the 2045 Initiative, brainchild of Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov is:

“to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. We devote particular attention to enabling the fullest possible dialogue between the world’s major spiritual traditions, science and society.” 

The Initiative has the goal for the “advanced non-biological carrier” controlled by a “brain-computer” interface (I always think of the Borg when I read this) that between 2030 and 2035 would be able to transfer a human consciousness, and by 2045 create a new era for humanity with holographic bodies. The first successful transubstantiation is estimated to happen around 2035. After that we will each be able to back ourselves up to the cloud, if we can afford the data plan.

Which leads me to speculate about the designer avatar bodies of the future. Could we come back as our favorite comic book hero? fashion model? movie star? Or maybe a werewolf? sprite? Medusa? Maybe we will change avatars season to season, like we would change clothing or hairstyles.

The longest documented human lifespan is 122 years — Jeanne Calment who, according to records, was born in 1875 and died in 1997. If any of us is still around in 2070 we will see if Ray Kurzweil breaks her record. Assuming we recognize Ray as Ray.

The goal of the UN Commission on Population and Development (founded in 1946) is to carry out the accords of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which met for the first time at Lake Geneva in 1927 and most recently at Nairobi in 2019. Today its function is merely to advocate for four qualitative and quantitative goals:

  • Universal education: Universal primary education in all countries; wider access for women to secondary and higher level education, vocational and technical training. 
  • Reduction of infant and child mortality: Below 35 per 1,000 live births and under-five mortality below 45 per 1,000.
  • Reduction of maternal mortality: Halving by decade and narrowing differences between geographical regions, socio-economic and ethnic groups.
  • Access to reproductive and sexual health services including active discouragement of female genital mutilation.

These four goals are all directed at the single purpose of halting and reversing population growth, something that was generally conceived of as a long-term threat in 1927, but which is less concerning today, given the demographic reversal underway in the largest, urbanizing nations. And yet, we should still be concerned. Here’s why.

When the ecological footprint of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the environment it lives in, this is called “biocapacity deficit.” Typically it comes from three sources: overusing one’s own ecosystems (“overshoot”), “trade imbalances” between adjoining systems, and misallocation of the commons. 

The biological capacity of an ecosystem is an estimate of its production of certain biological materials and relationships we like to call natural resources, and its absorption and filtering of wastes and pollutants we like to call ecosystem services — functions such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

For example, there were 12.2 billion hectares of biologically productive land and water areas on this planet in 2016. Dividing by the number of people alive in that year, 7.4 billion, yields a biocapacity of 1.6 global hectares per person. But that average includes protected and unprotected areas occupied by wild and migratory species, inhospitable regions like the summit of Everest or the submerging Everglades, and places of vital habitats for insects, plants, and microbes that compete with people for space.

As we slide seamlessly from 7 billion to 8 billion humans, each generation more powerful, polluting, and destructive than the previous, I have to wonder whether one century is too much time to allow a “natural” progression into negative population growth, or whether the biodiversity damage a century like this one will inflict could be incalculable and irreversible, if not terminal for us. Think about the honey bees and hummingbirds. Think about the sudden absence of insects we are seeing all over the world, and how that soon may affect populations farther up or down the food chain. 

Now, Mr. Biotech Billionaire, are you serious about populating the world with thousands or millions of bicentiniarians and tricentinarians?

References:

Beisel, Uli, and Christophe Boëte. “The flying public health tool: genetically modified mosquitoes and malaria control.” Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (2013): 38–60.

Bradshaw, Corey JA, Paul R. Ehrlich, Andrew Beattie, Gerardo Ceballos, Eileen Crist, Joan Diamond, Rodolfo Dirzo et al. “Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future.” Frontiers in Conservation Science 1 (2021): 9.

English, Simon G., Natalia I. Sandoval-Herrera, Christine A. Bishop, Melissa Cartwright, France Maisonneuve, John E. Elliott, and Kenneth C. Welch. “Neonicotinoid pesticides exert metabolic effects on avian pollinators.” Scientific reports 11, no. 1 (2021): 1–11.

Köhler, Heinz-R., and Rita Triebskorn. “Wildlife ecotoxicology of pesticides: can we track effects to the population level and beyond?.” Science 341, no. 6147 (2013): 759–765.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

#RestorationGeneration

“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.


Want to help make a difference while you shop in the Amazon app, at no extra cost to you? Simply follow the instructions below to select “Global Village Institute” as your charity and activate AmazonSmile in the app. They’ll donate a portion of your eligible purchases to us.

How it works: 

1. Open the Amazon app on your phone 
2. Select the main menu (=) & tap on “AmazonSmile” within Programs & Features 
3. Select “Global Village Institute” as your charity 
4. Follow the on-screen instructions to activate AmazonSmile in the mobile app

Friends

Friends

Dis-complainer

The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.