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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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