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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Earth's plants produce exactly what others eat

In this blog and other blogs that will follow, I will show you how laws of nature limit human expectations borne from ignorance and arrogance.  First, I would like to remind those readers who might be scientifically-challenged that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology are called "laws," because we, scientists, have found no exceptions to them in as many experiments as have been carried out for as long as these laws have been on the books.  I repeat: As opposed to legal laws, the laws of nature do not allow exceptions, do not listen to lobbyists, shrug off presidents, and dispatch ignorant scientists to the trash bin of history.

Just like ignorance of the law cannot be a legal excuse, ignorance of the laws of nature is a crime, not an oops. But, because most societies do not care much about nature, this crime generally goes unpunished by human laws.  In the long run, however, trespassing against the laws of nature has only one outcome: We perish by one means or another.  Since this perishing is distributed over space and time, most people do not make the connection.  So think about all the cancer cases among the people you knew and remember.  Or all the ADD or autistic children you know or have met.  Or all the diabetics you know or have met. Did you notice how many people have rampant allergies? How much do you know about the Roundup-resistant super-weeds that crop up everywhere? How many people die in hospitals from deadly infections caused by the methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) superbug? What do you know about giant pig farms and cow feedlots? Do you understand connections between valley fever and industrial agriculture? And so on...

Probably the most fundamental law of nature is mass conservation: Mass of anything cannot be created from nothing and mass cannot disappear into nothing.  This law was co-discovered by the Russian chemist Mikhail Lomonosov in 1765, and the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier in 1774. Lavoisier described this law in the first modern handbook of chemistry he published in 1789.
In 1774, Lavoisier showed that, although matter can change its state in a chemical reaction, the total mass of matter is the same at the end as at the beginning of every chemical change. Thus, for instance, if a piece of wood is burned to ashes, the total mass of ash, carbon in the carbon dioxide and hydrogen in the water from the wood burning is the same as the original mass of the wood piece.
Here is how the law of mass conservation rules life on the Earth:
Since no chemical element, even hydrogen, can leave the living planet Earth, all Earth's households, called "ecosystems," conserve mass on average. Otherwise, these ecosystems would perish with no exceptions.
The keywords here are:
  1. "The living planet," in which life put oxygen into the primordial Earth's atmosphere and created ozone that converts the light hydrogen molecules trying to escape the Earth's gravitational pull into the much heavier water molecules.
  2. "On average," because the small and young ecosystems can be subsidized for a while with the mass of nutrients and water from their surroundings.  
Actually, the law of mass conservation stated above works only because the Earth is also open to the flow of heat.  Infrared radiation must leave the planet for life to exist.  It is the combination of these two aspects of the planet Earth (she is closed to mass flow and open to infrared radiation) that makes ecosystems recycle all mass on average and export only low quality heat.  Soon, I will tell you more about these finely-tuned physico-chemical constraints that maintain life on the Earth.

The implications of this law are staggering:
  1. Nature knows of no waste and each large ecosystem recycles all mass.  "Waste" is a concept developed by humans to hide our tragic negligence and ineptitude.  One species' waste is food for another species, so that in the end no harmful chemicals are left to damage a functioning ecosystem.  Nature does not do toxic waste super-sites; only humans do.
  2. A small imperfection in nature's total recycling enterprise are swamps, lakes, and estuaries that can bury minuscule quantities of organic detritus and remove it from an ecosystem.  Over hundreds of millions of years, this imperfection gave us deposits of coal, crude oil and natural gas.
  3. If all mass is recycled, the biomass plants produce must be consumed by these plants and by the non-photosynthesizing organisms (heterotrophic bacteria, fungi and animals, including Homo Sapiens).  Nothing spare is left on average at the planetary scale after the Earth completes each orbit around the Sun.
  4. Humans disturb natural ecosystems with the greedy monocultures of morphed plants, most of which cannot survive in the wild. We call these monocultures "industrial agriculture." We subsidize agriculture with external flows of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, sulfur, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, etc., fossil fuels outright, and often water.   These plants sprout from the oft-patented and self-destructing seeds, which take more energy to produce than the heating value of an equal mass of gasoline. We then call these simplified, open, and always stunted ecosystems "sustainable agriculture."  We can hide behind the fossil subsidies for a while, but in the long run industrial agriculture systems must fail, Monsanto's claims to the contrary notwithstanding.
  5. Since, on the Earth, almost no biomass is left unspoken for at the end of each year, and agriculture is a primitive caricature of natural ecosystems, the more agriculture there is on the Earth, the less biomass she produces. In addition, industrial agriculture swamps the surrounding natural ecosystems with a widespread chemical pollution that wounds or kills these natural ecosystems.  By area and environmental impacts, agriculture is the largest human endeavor. Therefore, agricultural pollution and emissions are truly global in scale.
June 22, 2013: This suffocating haze in Singapore is caused by the runaway fires devouring the tropical forest and peat in the neighboring Indonesia.  The vast swaths of natural forest in Indonesia have been burned illegally by investors mostly from Singapore and Malaysia to establish the giant plantations of oil palms for biodiesel, food, and cosmetics.  Cumulatively over 10 million hectares of the pristine tropical forest have been eliminated in Indonesia. The carbon dioxide emissions from burning forests in Indonesia alone rival all of the emissions from all of the sources on the entire Earth.  Of course, agrofuel advocates talk incessantly about the huge reductions of gas emissions from burning biofuels.
In the upcoming installments, I will tell you how we measure with great accuracy that all biomass is recycled on the Earth each year.  I will also tell you about the monstrous damage to the most important ecosystems on the Earth inflicted by industrial agriculture.  Please look at the picture of the haze above, and realize that the lungs of our planet are being amputated in the name of making our breathing easier through the use of biofuels. A haze like this kills infants and elderly outright, and maims other people through allergies, respiratory disease, heart attack, and lung cancer.  It also maims all animals.

The enormity of the biofuel lie is such that I constantly rub my eyes and pinch myself to check if this is merely a bad dream or modern fascism has arrived.  Fascism, of course, is a seamless bundle (from the Latin term fascio) of corporations and state that work together to manipulate and control population.  This concept was formulated by Il Duce some 80 years ago. The modern "democracies," using modern technology and slick propaganda have vastly improved on that rather primitive concept.

This future oil palm plantation in Indonesia will replace another vast swath of the useless, undeveloped tropical forest.  The forest animals will  burn or be exterminated, just like countless other species. But the clean biodiesel from the palm oil produced on this plantation will power high-tech cars driven by the enthusiasts of a wonderful new green technology that almost eliminates all carbon dioxide emissions.  Congratulations are in order.




Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Ghost of Julian Simon

The essence of my unchanging argument is as follows: An exponential growth of human population can be supported for a while by a similarly exponential increase of production of power as primary energy per unit time and food we must eat each day. After a certain time interval, whose length depends on the rate of population growth and technology, both the population and the means of its survival must stabilize or collapse.  The elapsed time to collapse depends strongly on the rate of deterioration of environmental services of the Earth: abundance of clean air, water, good soil, large healthy forests, and biodiversity in general, as well as on the healthy oceans.

Please note the two key phrases: "for a while" and "a certain time interval."  My argument is generally  rejected, because most people focus on the here and now, and forget that a few decades are less than a blink of an eye in history of humanity.  In the more sophisticated circles of "main-stream" economists, my argument is summarily dismissed as Malthusian.

Thomas Robert Malthus was one of the most influential economists of all times. His anonymous Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798. The second edition, revised in 1803,  had a longer title too: ..., or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an enquiry into our Prospects respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it occasions. It contained an analysis of the unequal nature of food supply to population growth. The exponential nature of population growth is today known as the Malthusian growth model: "This natural inequality of the two powers, of population, and of production of the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficultly that appears to me insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society."
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS  (13 February 1766 – 23 December 1834)
The first modern professor of political science, the first faculty fully endowed by a corporate chair and  - according to some - a unique scoundrel. 
Enter the famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich.

Julian Lincoln Simon was a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute at the time of his death, after previously serving as a longtime business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Simon strongly believed that the infinite Earth can support an infinite human population and infinite consumption of resources over infinite time. I summarize such views as cornucopian, a term derived from the cornucopia, the "horn of plenty" of Greek mythology, which magically supplied its owners with endless food and drink.
Julian Lincoln Simon (February 12, 1932 – February 8, 1998)
Paul Ralph Ehrlich is an American biologist and educator who is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology. Ehrlich is best known for his dire warnings about population growth and limited resources. Ehrlich became well-known after publication of his controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb.  Paul Ehrlich's views can be summarized as Malthusian.
Paul Ralph Ehrlich (born May 29, 1932)
In 1980, Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich decided to put their money where their predictions were. Ehrlich had been predicting shortages of various natural resources, while Simon claimed natural resources were infinite. Simon offered Ehrlich a bet centered on the market price of metals. Ehrlich would pick a quantity of any five metals he liked worth $1000 in 1980. If the 1990 price of the metals, after adjusting for inflation, was more than $1000 (i.e., the metals became more scarce), Ehrlich would win. If, however, the value of the metals after inflation was less than $1000 (i.e. the metals became less scarce), Simon would win. Ehrlich agreed to the bet, and chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten. By 1990, all five metal were below their inflation-adjusted price level in 1980. Simon won, based on this particular snapshot of commodity prices, and the world sighed with relief.  So here is my update.
Click on the image to enlarge it. Value of the metal portfolio chosen by Paul Ehrlich - with chromium substituted by zinc and tungsten by silver - in dollars of the day (red curve).  The chromium and tungsten prices are not readily available in public domain. The chromium price behaves similarly to that of copper, but with less variation. The tungsten and silver prices behave similarly. The black curve is $1000 worth of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil. The vertical line denotes October 2004, when the global production rate of conventional petroleum and lease condensate reached a plateau. Note the close correlation of metal prices with oil price post 2002.  In dollars of the day, Ehrlich won most of the time. Updated 1/30/2016.
Click on the image to enlarge it. Value of the metal portfolio chosen by Paul Ehrlich  - with chromium substituted by zinc and tungsten by silver - in constant 1982 dollars  (red curve).  The black curve is $1000 worth of West Texas Intermediate crude oil. The vertical line denotes October 2004, when the global production rate of conventional petroleum and lease condensate reached a plateau. In constant dollars, Simon won 60% of the time between September 1982 and December 2015. The 2008 crash of the global economy carved deep canyons in both curves. According to this history of the portfolio, Simon was mostly winning until 2006, and started mostly losing thereafter.  The global recession of 2008 helped Simon to win again for one year. The developing global recession of 2015/16 may yet help Simon win again for some time. Updated 1/30/2016.

The plot above illustrates the dynamic nature of resource prices, their direct link to the price of oil, and the generally increasing prices of all commodities since the year 2000.  A decade is less than a tick of a clock, and one cannot draw permanent conclusions based on a snapshot of global economy at any given time.  Trends over years or decades are far more important.

Today, the prevailing wisdom still is that the Earth's resources are infinite.  If, on the other hand, one admits that the Earth is finite, all resources must eventually become scarce in absolute sense. The fundamental inability of "main-stream" economics to deal with absolute scarcity is probably the main reason why so many economists have wished it away and buried Malthus so many times. But as the another famous ecologist, Garrett James Hardin, once said, "anyone who has to be reburied so often cannot be entirely dead."
The standard macro-economic model of global economy.

P.S. Professor Albert Bartlett has send me this text of his 1996 paper that is very pertinent to this blog.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Human Foibles

I am on a short vacation with my wife.  We are staying in my daughter boyfriend's family summer house in Casadero, 9 miles west from Guerneville, CA.  It is a very nice house in the middle of a majestic redwood forest, separated by a long forest driveway from the road.

In the house, I find five white document boxes that hold an archive of old LA Times newspapers.  I open the first box and pick up at random the business section for LA Times dated May 21, 1992.  In it, my eyes lock immediately on a report bemoaning President Bush's handling of the Savings and Loans debacle, and how the government loan pools favor big S&Ls relative to ordinary people.  Then I see an article stating that people will never again look the same at investing into houses. (In May 1992, we were in the second year of a major housing slump.)   Does this sound familiar, or what?   Why have we forgotten?  I take it back: Why have most people forgotten? I have not forgotten, and this is my curse.

We are on the Blind Beach near Jenner.  The wide, dark coarse sand beach is empty, just us and a young family with a small boy and an even smaller girl.  The mother is maybe 25 years old and round.  She is dressed in a white tight tunic with black vertical stripes and tight black pants that make her large belly bulge like a flabby watermelon. The little girl starts running away from the ocean and into the empty beach.  Suddenly, we hear the young mother barking commands military-style: "Not so far, Emily! Stop!  We are going pee, Emily!  Follow me! Not this way!" And so on.  I am thinking: "Here is the second generation of the controlled, chauffeured everywhere, and vastly over-snacked young people.  The mother is brainwashing her daughter to be scared of walking ten feet on the sand and, perhaps, of any other spontaneous activity, just like her parents beat independence out of her."  How can such people think independently, and love and understand nature?
The Blind Beach photographed by me a day earlier from the north side of the Russian River.
On Public TV, Bill Moyers discusses the hollowing out of the middle class in San Jose, a city at the center of the Silicon Valley.  Without a doubt what happens in the Silicon Valley, changes the world and some people get fabulously rich.  But these people no longer manufacture wafers, chips and devices, and do not need highly qualified, well paid factory workers.  Actually they do not need much of any help, but they have so much cash that suddenly San Jose, Cupertino, etc. are too expensive for most people, and many families become homeless just one lost pay check later.  They interview an old, old homeless woman, who says that she is 54 and that she worked in a chip manufacturing factory when chips were still made in America. She is toothless and looks 80 or so.

Why do people believe that modulated electrons - translated into oodles of cash for the modulators - will bring prosperity to all?  How can Facebook enrich masses?  Facebook can make crowds jerk off in public, like in a never-ending high school reunion, but how can these people become rich through narcissistic gossip? Can they still talk to a living person, while gesticulating and maintaining eye contact?

Why can't I be like Amory Lovins, or Julian Simon , or Jeffrey Sachs, or some other politruk?  (In the Soviet nomenclature, "politruk" was an acronym for "political commander.") Why can't I sooth people and assure them of never-ending prosperity and happiness with never-ending population growth and wealth generation? Why can't I assure all that there will be no oil nor gas nor any other peak of anything, because human ingenuity and optimism will always win with nature?  Why do I have to be such a cold, unloving scientist? 

If I were a Julian Simon, some other very distinguished imbecile would write about me:
...The great human adventure has barely begun. The greenest thing we can do is innovate. The most sustainable thing we can do is change. The only limit is knowledge. Thank you Julian Simon for these insights...
Millions of people would read (no, not actively read, but only passively watch) and nod with warm approval.  But, no, I have to insist on the existence of the Second Law, irreversibility, mass conservation, energy conservation, zero net productivity of the Earth, and so many other idiotic things no one believes in anymore.

Instead of praise, I keep on hearing this song:
La, la, la, la!  I do-on't hear you!  La, la, la,la...
And what I hear serves me right.