Unsustainable Goose Chases

As we look toward the uncertain future, it may occur to some among us that we’ll need energy on Mars. How are we going to get it? Presumably Mars has no fossil fuels—although on the plus side its atmosphere is already 95% CO2, compared to Earth’s 0.04%, so they’re likely to be less uptight about carbon emissions on the red planet.

At this point, we could launch into an extensive discussion, full of quantitative detail and analysis about the solar potential: insolation, materials availability, dust storm mitigation, and on and on. But the real answer to how we will get energy on Mars is probably: we won’t. We’re extremely unlikely to set up a permanent presence on Mars, if humans ever even go there at all. So the exercise would be of questionable value.

I feel similarly about discussions of full-scale renewable energy and associated storage and grid shenanigans. How will we rise to the challenge to keep modernity powered into the future? In all likelihood, we won’t. Besides the misdirection of “inexhaustible flows,” keeping modernity powered by any means looks like game-over for ecological health, and therefore humans, if pursued at all costs. So, enough with the fantasy schemes.

Why so bold? Glad you asked.

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Inexhaustible Flows?

Photo from Monash Universiry

I recently came across a statement to the effect that once we transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy like solar, wind, and hydro, we would essentially be home free for the long run—tapping into inexhaustible flows. It is a very pleasant notion, to be sure, and one that I believe is relatively common among enthusiasts for renewable energy.

Naturally, I am concerned by the question of: what magnificent things would we do with everlasting copious energy? As an excellent guide, we can ask what amazing things have we done with the recent bolus of energy from fossil fuels? Well, in the course of pursuing material affluence, we have eliminated 85% of primeval forest, made new deserts, created numerous oceanic dead zones, drained swamps, lost whole ecosystems, almost squashed the remaining wild land mammals, and initiated a sixth mass extinction with extinction rates perhaps thousands of times higher than their background levels—all without the help of CO2 and climate change (which indeed adds to the list of ills). These trends are still accelerating. Yay for humans, who can now (temporarily) live in greater comfort and numbers than at any time in history!

But the direction I want to take in this post is on the narrower (and ultimately less important) technical side. All the renewable energy technologies rely on non-renewable materials. Therefore, inexhaustible flows are beside the point. It’s like saying that fossil fuel energy is not practically limited by available oxygen for combustion, so we can enjoy fossil fuels indefinitely. Or that D–T fusion has billions of years of deuterium available, when there’s no naturally-occurring tritium (thus reliant on limited lithium supply). In a multi-part system, the limiting factor is, well, the limiting factor. Sure, into the far future the sun will shine, the wind will blow, and rain will fall. But capturing those flows to make electricity will require physical stuff: all the more material for such diffuse flows. If that stuff is not itself of renewable origin, then oops. The best guarantee of renewability is being part of natural regeneration (i.e., of biological origin). If solar panels, wires, inverters, and batteries were made of wood and the like: alright, then.

Recognizing that biological organisms—plants and the animals that directly or indirectly draw energy from them—have already figured out how to tap into (essentially) inexhaustible flows—solar, primarily—I became interested in comparing the performance of the human animal to that of a solar panel or wind turbine, in terms of mineral requirements. After all, the biosphere gets by without mining the depths. So let’s dig into the material requirements of life.

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Sustainable Timescales

Image by günter from Pixabay

The word “sustainable” is overused to the point of becoming almost meaningless in our culture. In principle, though, it’s an easy enough concept. Unsustainable things fail: unable to continue indefinitely. By this logic, sustainable implies the opposite of failure: success.

Note that “sustainable” does not mean some mythical equilibrium, which has never existed for life on this planet. The key condition is that major changes are gradual enough to allow ecological adaptation. When they aren’t, we get mass extinctions—even when it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years for the precipitating changes to fully develop.

So, step one in assessing sustainability is to ask: what can continue without failing? But the question needs an associated timescale to be meaningful. This post explores timescales on which it makes sense to assess sustainable practices.

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Mysterious Materialism

Image by Kerstin Herrmann from Pixabay

My recent posts have suggested that our world, in all its magnificence, needs nothing beyond physics and emergent complexity to still be mysterious and inspiring, which in turn can lead to being better, humble ecological partners in the community of life. While many human cultures have gravitated toward beliefs in gods, human transcendence, or a higher purpose, I point out that the billion-year timescales of evolution offer plenty of room for unfathomable results that defy our cognitive capacities to grasp. What if all it takes is physics (particles in uncountable relationships) and lots of time for amazingness to emerge? Are you not entertained?

Such a view might predictably be denigrated as reductionist, materialist, and lacking imagination. It’s ironic, because from my point of view it seems to require a super-human amount of imagination: so much that I don’t possess nearly enough on my own—nor has any other human been able to put it all together for us. The very same “failure” of complete end-to-end explanation that causes many to reject the premise leaves me in awe, wonder, and appreciation. One might say that it’s a more challenging concept than the alternatives.

Our recent trajectory has been one of serial demotions, each perhaps more insulting than the last. Earth is not at the center of creation. Nor is the sun at the center of the galaxy. Our galaxy is not at the center of the universe. Our universe may indeed be one among countless others (we can probably never know). Closer to home, we learn that humans evolved from apes, tracing back to slime in our distant lineage. As a corollary, humans are not, in the end, exempt from the laws of life: we are physical beings still subject to—and dependent on—biological and ecological constraints. The proposal I discuss takes the demotion series another step: removing imagined transcendent properties of free will (mind, or soul) and divine favor—instead establishing us as compulsory actors in an extravagant production of physics. It all makes for a rough day, unless your expectations are unusually low.

What could be more humbling than to accept ourselves as piles of atoms executing the interactions of physics? Note that we could use heaps and heaps more humility in our world. Perhaps this is one route to get there: a principle that also more closely binds us to all other life—to our collective benefit.

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