December 26th, 2008

Procession, Isidora, Dionysia

Heinlein on Specialization

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.  Specialization is for insects."

-- Robert Heinlein

  • Current Mood
    optimistic optimistic

Basics: Of Matter and Energy (How the world works, Part I)

Goddess and God, 0 and 1, matter and energy...

The basic Laws of Thermodynamics (or "thermogoddamits", as my father used to call them while studying for his PhD in Chemical Engineering)...

Neither matter nor energy arise out of nothing.  In all the Cosmos, there is what there is (probably).  Matter and energy transform, traveling over space and time, from body to body, clustering, dispersing, in a giant web of interconnection, from the Big Bang on.

There is so much vast empty space between our solar system and other clusters of matter and energy that in practical terms, the matter and energy in our solar system are what our solar system has to deal with, nothing more.  The preceding statement is an oversimplification and technically inaccurate, but close enough to be workable.

The Sun, that great nuclear reactor at the center of our solar system, constantly bombards its surrounding planets, including Earth, our home, with energy in the form of heat and light.  Some of this energy is reflected off our atmosphere into space, some is absorbed and put into use here on Earth, and eventually radiated out from our planet into space, in a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Earth gets some inputs of matter from outside itself -- meteors, space dust and such -- but this input is not enough to be a major source of renewal of the matter on Earth.  We are a finite planet, and we must rely on the matter already here for ongoing renewal of all the forms on Earth, including our own bodies, the soil, the water, and so much more.

(If we ever do receive an input of matter from outside Earth that is big enough to provide significant additional matter to deal with, the collision will be so destructive to current forms as to destroy human and most other life, and transform our planet, so we needn't bother with that possibility here.)

Bottom line:  the Earth is finite.  We've got what we've got, so we must take care not to trash it.

Here on Earth as everywhere else, all matter and energy are constantly transforming, traveling from place to place over time, from body to body, clustering, dispersing, in a planet-wide web of interconnection that began with the formation of this planet and will continue until it is finally obliterated in the ultimate violent death of our Sun (or perhaps sooner, in a collision with a sufficiently large asteroid.)

"Economy" is ultimately that interchange of matter and energy.  The notion of infinite, unending growth, economically and otherwise, has always been an especially foolish myth.

An interchange of matter and energy, in dynamic equilibrium, has evolved on Earth over the millennia.  The nature of the dynamic equilibrium changed significantly over time.  Currently, it supports human life as part of a vast, complex, interconnected web of many, many life forms and so-called non-living forms such as soil, air, water, rocks...

The dynamic equilibrium of matter and energy on Earth has not always been such as to support human life, and there is no guarantee that it will remain so.  That is an important point to keep in mind.  We humans are almost certainly not so powerful as to be able to destroy all life on Earth (life can be incredibly tough, and has already adapted to many extremes.)  But we can screw the current equilibrium up to the point that Earth wipes us out as a species (along with a huge number of other species -- collateral damage.)

After all, the vast majority of species that have ever evolved on this planet have gone extinct -- extinction is the most common outcome of evolution.

As for me, I love being alive.  For all that human beings can be incredibly destructive, foolish, and short-sighted (particularly regarding our relationship with our planet and its many inhabitants) we also have some truly wonderful and unique qualities and potentials that I believe to be valuable in the mix.  I would like for our Earth to continue to be able to support human life and as many as possible of the other current life forms as well, in a context of abundance and beauty.  Which means that we human beings, especially those living in or aspiring to an industrialized lifestyle, have to change our ways of living on Earth.

Fortunately (if challengingly) we will be forced to do so.
  • Current Mood
    enthralled thorough
God Shrine

Basics: Life on Earth (How the world works, Part II)

The Sun is the most important source of energy on Earth.  Other sources include geothermal energy, gravity... possibly nuclear energy and wave energy should be considered separate energy sources.  But the greatest in magnitude and availability is the Sun -- solar energy.

The solar energy that makes it through our atmosphere heats and lights land, water, and air -- and us -- directly.  But that effect is pretty much just during the day. 

Plants are the greatest processors of and storage units for solar energy on this planet.  They use solar energy and the substances they absorb through air and soil to build their bodies, reproduce, and store energy for future use.  In the process, they convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into free oxygen and carbohydrates stored in their bodies -- their major form of energy storage.  When they drop their leaves or shed other parts of themselves, and certainly when they die and decompose, they return to the soil the substance of their bodies they had gotten from soil and air.

Animals, including humans, breathe in the oxygen released by plants, and eat the plants, taking in plant carbohydrates which provide the animals with energy.  Animals also eat other animals, taking in their stored energy (in the form of carbohydrates and fats).  Animals use the substance (matter) of the plants and animals they consume to grow and renew their bodies.

We are what we eat, all of us.

In the process of metabolism, animals convert oxygen and carbohydrates into energy that they use to do what they need to do, and into carbon dioxide, which they release into the atmosphere when they exhale.  Animals excrete what they cannot use of what they have consumed, and eventually die.  Their bodies feed other animals and various microbes and other living creatures, sooner or later returning to the soil.

There the plants can take in the substances provided by the excretions and bodies of animals, other plants, and other living creatures, even as they use the carbon dioxide released from animals' lungs, and the cycle continues.

Unto Thee we return a small portion of the bounty Thou hast given us.

Our excretions -- our urine and feces -- were our first, primal libations and oblations.  Unless we and other animals and plants give back to the earth what we have taken from it, the soil is depleted.  This refers to our excretions and our bodies themselves, when we have no more use for them.  It also refers to the parts of our food (other animals and plants) that we do not consume, indeed all materials that came from the earth.  The longer we take without giving back, the less the soil will contain of the nutrients we need, and the more it will be diminished in both quality and quantity.

If we use up water sources faster than they can be replenished, we will have less and less water to use.  If we pollute what is left...

Earth our home is a closed system (more or less, practically speaking) in dynamic equilibrium.

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    impressed Awed
Yule-fire, Yule, candle

The energy supply anomoly

Earth's dynamic equilibrium has continued for aeons.  During the vast majority of human history, we have relied upon direct passive use of solar energy, and on the solar energy stored in plants and animals living concurrently with ourselves, to fuel ourselves and those animals who shared our workload in return for our care of them.  In other words, we were limited to the solar energy currently making its way to the surface of the Earth, more or less.  There was no other great store of energy available to us, at least that we knew how to obtain and use.

But throughout the aeons, a few plants -- mostly algae -- were neither consumed nor did they release their energy stores through decomposition when they died, for they experienced a different fate.  By chance and uncommon circumstance, their bodies were exposed to an extremely rare combination of conditions that, over many aeons, transformed and greatly concentrated their substance and stored energy.  They were turned into fossil fuels -- petroleum, coal, natural gas.

The process was uncommon, requiring unique and relatively rare combinations of events and circumstances.  It was also extremely slow and gradual, requiring millions or billions of years.  But in those (relatively) few pockets where it did take place, nothing was taking away or consuming the increasingly concentrated, buried stores of solar energy.  So over time, they built up.

With geological change, some of the stores came near to the surface of the land, where human beings could find them.  But for millenia, when we did encounter seeps of oil or layers of that peculiar kind of black rock, we made little use of them.  The black rocks might burn, but dried dung and fallen branches were easier to collect and feed to the fires.  Occasionally oil was used to waterproof items, or make torches, or somesuch.

Over time though, humankind's interest in the fossil fuels increased, with coal being the first to be used extensively.  The industrial revolution was first fueled with coal as we used up forests, and discovered how concentrated a source of energy these black rocks were.  Then came the increasingly rapid discoveries of petroleum and natural gas.  We discovered they were more than just enormously concentrated sources of fuel energy.  The fossil fuels had many, many uses!  They were and are used to make fertilizers, medications, cloth, plastics, paraffin for candles, asphalt for roads, and more.  Much more.

The energy in fossil fuels gave each of us cheap access to the equivalent of many, many working animals (even powerful ones like horses) and slaves -- and we didn't have to feed, clothe, or shelter them, train them, or put up with unwanted behavior from them!

The fossil fuels warmed us, relieved us of work, increased our capacity for producing things (and with that, our capacity to use up many more resources).  They made it possible for us to irrigate and live on previously barren uninhabitable land.  They allowed us to travel faster and farther than ever before.  They restored and even increased the ability of depleted soils to produce crops (albeit of decreased nutritional value).  They made it possible to transport food crops, even very perishable ones, and many other goods and products over great distances, even across oceans from one continent to another.  They had more uses than these, more than I care to list here.

The proportion of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere increased at an unprecedented rate that mirrored with incredible precision our use of fossil fuels.  After all, we were burning -- metabolizing -- the equivalent of millennia of algae growth in the space of only a couple hundred years.  This increased the greenhouse effect of our atmosphere, decreasing the amount of heat the Earth radiates into space.

Our population increased enormously, exponentially -- an increase made possible by the unprecedented energy and resources supplied by fossil fuels.  Our current human population is estimated to be 3 to 6 times the carrying capacity of Earth prior to the industrial revolution.

It was a heady ride.  Our lives changed radically again and again -- steady, seemingly unending "progress".  For a while -- a few generations, enough to forget the realities of previous human history -- it seemed that whatever we wanted, there would always be more.  We could use up, consume, throw away, and never run out.  We began to believe the myth of infinite growth.

But the rules of nature had not changed.  We had just found an exceptional source of super-concentrated energy -- and failed to realize that it was finite.  We were going through it fast.

We are at the peak of the steep mountain of growth now.  Current supplies of petroleum can no longer meet current demand.  Supplies of natural gas will soon be in the same boat, if they have not already reached their peak.  Coal will follow suit, eventually reaching its peak production and beginning the downward slide - many say within this century (faster if we try to make it substitute for the dwindling supplies of petroleum and natural gas.)  The demand for all these fuels is increasing.  The discrepancy between supply and demand will grow larger. 

What goes up, must come down.
  • Current Mood
    worried dismayed
GOd, Kokopelli

"Beyond Sustainability"

"Once we accept the reality and magnitude of energy descent, we begin to ask what 'sustainability', 'sustainable systems' or 'sustainable system design' might be.  Even the idea of permanence at the heart of permaculture is problematic to say the least.

"For any human culture to be considered sustainable it must have the capacity (proven only with historical hindsight) to reproduce itself down the generations while providing human material needs without cataclysmic and long-term breakdown.  If it is energetically impossible for high energy society to be anything more than a pulse in the long run of human  history, then it cannot, by this definition, be sustainable, no matter how much we shuffle the technological deckchairs.  ...we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves or even for our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is use of our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent."  (italics in the original)

David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, 2002.

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    awake awake
Art&Elegance, Beading

Basics: Part IV, Human Needs

In locating, designing and building Haven, we seek to create a local system that is a move toward a sustainable culture and lifestyle of the future -- a home where we might be much more self-sufficient than we are now at Berkana House.  In order to meet both those goals, we must take into account not only the basics of energy and resource cycles (roughly and tersely outlined in previous entries), but also human needs in general -- not to mention our own personal needs, hopes and goals.

The following is a list of basic human needs, starting with the most basic.  The list is simply one I have come up with for this entry, and I don't claim that it is definitive.  I may have left out some important human need, or included some that others don't see as true human needs.  No doubt some items on the list could be combined. Those lower on the list could no doubt be arranged in many different orders of importance, none of which I feel a need to pin down here. A sustainable human culture and home system must meet human needs, as well as the needs of other key players in the system.  So, for now, just a list:

Clothing to protect the body
Companionship and social contact
Mental/Intellectual Stimulation
Emotional needs
Sexual needs
Personal Adornment
Creative Expression
Spiritual needs

Comments and additions welcomed!
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    nerdy nerdy
Rose, Ice

The Mountain Peak

"When we picture the energy climax as a spectacular but dangerous mountain peak that we (humanity) have succeeded in climbing, the idea of descent to safety is a sensible and attractive proposition.  The climb involved heroic effort, great sacrifice, but also exhilaration and new views and possibilities at every step.  There are several false peaks, but when we see the whole world laid out around us we know we are at the top.  Some argue that there are higher peaks in the mists, but the weather is threatening.

"The view from the top reconnects us with the wonder and majesty of the world and how it all fits together, but we cannot dally for long.  We must take advantage of the view to chart our way down while we have favourable weather and daylight.  The descent will be more hazardous than the climb, and we may have to camp on a series of plateaus to rest and sit out storms.  Having been on the mountain for so long, we can barely remember the home in a far-off valley that we fled as it was progressively destroyed by forces we did not understand.  But we know that each step brings us closer to a sheltered valley where we can make a new home."

David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, 2002.

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    excited excited