Monday, March 18, 2013

Earth's Life Support System

If you have the unfortunate experience of being put on life support in a hospital, the price you (or your insurance company) pays is over a $1000 dollars a day. Using this as a starting figure, what should we value mother natures life support system? Think about it, the air you breath on a daily basis comes from plants all over the world. Sea algae contributes the bulk of it and the rest comes from trees, plants and mosses.

There is a good chance that at one time you ate a plant that once produced a little bit of the oxygen you breathed while eating it. The chances are much better if you harvested it from your own garden. But more than just a curiosity, or a relic of biology, plants are currently the only source of fresh oxygen necessary for every person and animal on earth.

The kingdom Plantae is as important; if not more, to human life as any part of modern day civilization. If a disastrous virus were to target chloroplasts, the organelle that plants use to generate energy from sun light, human life would be relegated to months at most. When biodiversity is lost the ability to fight off disease by having the genetic variability to find unique solutions to the problems nature and man creates is stifled.

What we are approaching today is the cusp of a radical change (by human standards) in biodiversity. It is easy to think that the loss of one species is not a big deal, after all, 99% of all species that have ever existed are long gone. Life has survived several mass extinctions in the past; the Permian, the Cretaceous/Tertiary for example. But that view is dangerously myopic.

It ignores the fact that these major collapses did not happen simply because of one major catastrophe. It is much more probable that the loss of a handful of species lead to the decline of the rest. Today we are witness to changes in biodiversity, that in the context of geological time, would be indistinguishable from the changes that lead to previous mass extinction events.

We are not extinguishing nature's resilience for the expense of man kind, but at the ultimate expense of man kind. We are not making a world inhospitable for nature, but most certainly inhospitable for human life. I know in the past I have written about the species that would benefit from a rapidly warming climate, giant insects and cold blooded reptiles, but mammals do not have such a rosy outlook. We are mammals.

If we do not take the changes needed seriously, limiting every individual's carbon footprint, stopping deforestation, ending the contamination of ecosystems with chemicals, and developing long term sustainable solutions to our needs, then the price paid by future generations will cost a lot more than $1000 per person per day.

As always I welcome comments and critiques and will not edit or omit anything.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Democratization of Energy.

Considering the amount of evidence that continuing fossil fuel exploitation will have negative consequences for the human race, it is hard for some of us to understand why there is so much resistance to change. The truth is it all comes down to disenfranchisement. The only reason solar, wind and other renewable energy sources haven't been unanimously adopted, is because it levels the playing field for too many Americans.

Our economy is built on winners and losers. The unspoken yet essential component to capitalism is the control of access to goods and services by a centralized private organization. Oil is the perfect medium for this sort of bully capitalism. How many people do you know that have the ability to drill, extract, refine and store all of their own petroleum? Because it requires sophisticated infrastructure; and its ultimately limited nature, exploitation of the consumer is safe guarded intrinsically.

Once democratized forms of energy production; like solar, become ubiquitous, centralized distribution becomes less and less necessary. How do you block access to the sun? Because there is no intrinsic method for controlling access to this type energy, how do you disenfranchise the consumer based in order to extract a revenue stream? This is the exact nature of the fight fossil fuel companies are putting up. They feel entitled to a percentage of your paycheck every month, and they are willing to pour billions into the election economy alone to maintain the leverage to get it.

I believe this puts them squarely at odds with the founding principals of our nation. What happened to the preservation of "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"? Life is being directly threatened as the carbon emissions have been unequivocally linked to drought, floods and other extreme weather events. What part of liberty is direct financial disenfranchisement? And I for one and not at all happy with with our elected representatives being solely beholden to the highest campaign contributor.

Today, the price of solar is competitive with fossil fuel energy distribution in all but a small handful of markets. The limited nature of fossil fuels means its price can only go up. The technology behind solar is more than eight decades old and the price is coming down. That means it will, sooner rather than later, eclipse the market for fossil fuel. The solar industry today; at 5% market saturation, already employs 3/4 of the Americans fossil fuels including coal, conventional oil and shale does combined.

There is a clear incentive to transition our nation over to a renewable energy portfolio for the vast majority of Americans. The only real change to anyone's way of life will be those who lose the control from the top.

As always, I encourage comments and critiques, and will not edit or omit anything.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Lemon-aid

Biologists are currently living in unrepresented times. More species transitioned from threatened to endangered on the endangered species list in recent years than ever before. I for one believe we are entering a new epoch in geological time. I am on the side of those who propose we have left the Holocene Epoch and are at the cusp of the Anthropocene extinction event.

Much like the previous key holes life on earth squeezed through at the end of the Permian and the Cretaceous periods, it is clear that the shifting climate will cause ecosystem collapse. As scientists we have a rare opportunity to study this collapse and see how tipping points in ecology actually work. We know that mass extinctions have happened, we have closely studied the fossil record to glean as much data as possible, but all this still has left the picture a little grainy and out of focus.

I propose a new field of study, Extinction Biology. This discipline will combine the ecosystem and biodiversity mapping of an ecologist with repeated intervals of surveys in places most likely to experience dramatic changes to environmental conditions. The goal will be to find not only the minimum viable population for individual species, but nail down the effects of specific species on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem as a whole.

What makes an ecosystem resilient? Does having multiple keystone species in competition lead to resilience? Or does it depend more on interactions on trophic levels that might have less diversity? For instance there are usually many different representatives from Plantae in proportion to only a few cordata species from Animalia.

Conservationists aghast at loss of biodiversity are really clinging to an anthropocentric view. The truth is we are not capable of exterminating life from planet earth. In the past we have lost nearly 90% of species (Permian extinction) extant at one time. Granted it took about 10 million years to recover, but it was not impossible. In truth, we should conserve current biodiversity in order to protect human life.

Since we as a species don't seem all that interested in continuing much longer, we should take advantage of a rare opportunity to gather and preserve as much data as possible so what ever life manages to struggle through this key hole of our own creation, if it should become sentient, can learn from our mistakes and make better choices.

As always, I encourage comments and critiques, and will not edit or omit any posts.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Failing Carbon Economy

Right now the Keystone XL pipeline is at he heart of a nationwide debate. Protests are taking place to halt the importation of Alberta Tar Sands development. On another front, fracking is being targeted for protest as well. The single biggest argument for both of these carbon based fuel sources is economic. Petroleum companies warn that stopping development of these resources would have dire consequences for many industries. About that much they are probably right.

But lets step back for a second and look at the economy as a whole. Currently the income distribution in the united states is more disparate than it has been since the age of slavery. The regressive tax structure embraced by Reagan and expanded further by subsequent administrations has; according to Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, allowed the top 1% to see an increase of wealth of over 150% and the top 0.1% to see over 300%. Meanwhile the entire bottom 90% owns less wealth combined that that of just the top 1%.

What does this have to do with tar sands and fracking? Basically, they took our skin out of the game. We no longer economically benefit from the system as it functions today. Why would we preserve a failed system? Wages have stagnated and the standard of living has decreased to the point where living in debt for an entire lifetime is not unusual for the vast majority of Americans. Yet as long as the power is on and the cable bill is paid, the disenfranchised masses are still docile.

The tipping point is not far off however. As more and more Americans become personally affected by climate change related disasters, the credibility of the modern day robber barons will erode. People already stretched to the limit will not be able to bear the extortion of the petroleum industry as it scrambles to control the dregs of an ultimately finite resource. A resource that is directly linked to the growing problems with food insecurity and water scarcity.

Once the decision becomes whether to fill up a tank of gas or buy groceries becomes a constant and inescapable reality, it will not be long before even the most hard headed come to realize they are forging the shackles that bind them. Personal debt will reach a limit where it is no longer sustainable to put off payment until better times roll around. A geology professor once said to me "No one really cares about clean drinking water until green sludge comes out of their tap".

Well, the green sludge is not far off.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Simple Math

There is one concept in biology that everyone should be aware of, the concept of Ecosystem Carrying Capacity. ECC is the ultimate limit of resources that are theoretically available within a closed system. Lets start with something manageable to understand this. Think of an isolated island in the ocean. There is only so much land area on this island for plants to grow and for water to be naturally filtered through geological processes.

Any population of animals will naturally fluctuate; in relation to individual species as well as in total, until the upper limit of resources it reached. Now in practice, most islands are capable of supporting a larger population than can be supported purely based on terrestrial vegetation due to the ocean's natural resource abundance. This can be seen as even tiny rocks can hold amazing numbers of birds nesting in colonies. Magnitudes larger in fact than the ECC of the land alone.

The point is, a strict accounting is still taking place. Resources can be tracked back to their sources definitively.

Now imagine the earth as an island. We humans have found all sorts of inventive ways to extract resources from what is ultimately a limited system with a single energy source. But unlike our tiny island, we are not solely limited by surface area with the ocean making up the debt for us. We have no such extra capacity to draw on. We are limited to the confines of our hunk of rock orbiting our star and the thin smear of habitable area clinging to it.

According to William Rees the simple math of global arable land suitable for food production in relation to population, paints a rather striking image. If for example we all lived at the resource consumption level of a sub-Saharan African, the ECC of our earth is around 15 billion people. At the other end of scale, the level of consumption of the average American places the ECC of the entire earth at about 1.5 billion people.

So where does that leave us today? With the world population recently crossing seven billion people, we have to find a resource consumption level that is sustainable for over seven billion people. Currently we rely on disproportionate resource distribution to maintain the luxurious American lifestyle. But that implies that we will have to increase the number of people we disenfranchise in order to maintain the standard of living for our growing population.

This inherent inequality isn't just exported either. At home we are becoming an increasingly stratified society, with resources being hoarded at the top and wages stagnating at the bottom (with the effect of lowering the standard of living for millions of Americans). True the agricultural revolution did have the effect of greatly increasing our ECC, but assuming another technocratic solution will expand our resources; to cover the quickly growing gap as other countries strive to reach western standards of living, ignores basic principals of physics and biology. Agricultural productivity does not advance like Moore's Law for farmers.

Water resource consumption is another important part of the equation as well. Again technocratic solutions, like desalination, are resource consumptive them selves and are realistically only stop-gaps and band-aids to and ever growing problem.

The only real path forward is to personally limit resource consumption. This needs to be a comprehensive process, with top down policy measures as well as bottom up personal accountability. The attitude of many Americans who feel completely entitled to an unsustainable standard of living is a luxury the human race can no longer afford. In effect that attitude is committing genocide on a large segment of the future population of earth.

We can soften the blow right now, by being proactive and working towards finding the balance or we can wait and hope that resource competition doesn't become violent in our lifetimes.