The further and more often an actor interacts from their particular place in the hierarchy, the greater the risks and failures become. And NO, with great risks does not come great rewards, only disorder.
-When first did/Where does humanity act at the wrong level in the energy hierarchy?
-Where are the areas (adjacent in the energy hierarchy) where humanity can act to increase overall emergy in the Earth system?
A Heap of What?
In the last post, I alluded to the fact that evolution in organic life is an amazing optimization engine. Evolution is constrained by historical contingencies, but even within its historical structure, evolution in organic life over a very long time has been able to test a tremendous amount of possibilities through countless permutations at the molecular, genetic, cellular, multicellular, and ecosystemic level (all together I will refer to as life). The world is full of life that is extremely good at utilizing energy and maximizing overall power through time. Humans no doubt are part of life, but when looking at how good life is at doing so many tasks it begs the question: where can humans act outside of some innate genetic programming to increase emergy of life? The Hierarchical Emergist Action PrincipleTM (HEAP) is my best answer of where to begin to act.
The Original Sin (Cliché Warning)
Humans in their postnatal form inhabit the space between about 1/3rd of a meter to 2.5 meters and can easily as adults more 40 kg at a velocity of 4 km/hr. The idea of HEAP is that by looking at the parameters previously mentioned, it should be easy to tell where humans are or are not acting at the proper scale. It is much like the Tale of Goldilocks (Fig 1). Too big, fast, and cold is not a good thing. Too small, incremental, and hot is also not a good thing. We need to act in mass at the “just right.”
There are so many examples today of where humans act in very damaging ways, but it seems important to understand where we may have first gone wrong. I like to try and find novel or different ways to apply Odum’s writings, which as a non-academic sometimes almost always stray into the dead wrong. This time I kept banging into the same first grade history lesson cliché for where we may have over applied our knowledge and acted distinctively outside the HEAP. The answer seems to be fire. Fire is really the first example of a technology that seems completely outside of what any other organism is capable of doing. There are many examples of animals that use tools (birds using sticks to fish bugs out of trees) or of organisms that co-opt smaller organisms to do energy conversions (bees using fungi to make fermented bee bread from pollen and honey). These are well within the scope of HEAP, since either the organism has a tool it can manipulate by itself or has a organism of the proper size and scale it can manipulate to make the energy conversion for it. Fire put from an organismic perspective is chemistry carried outside the context of a cell. Chemistry is small and small things are best done at smaller levels in the hierarchy. This is a clear violation of HEAP.
HEAP of Violations
The idea of HEAP is two fold. One is that there maybe certain things we should never do that are either too large or too small. The second is that we may choose to risk doing some things that are too large or too small some of the time, but that the more we do them the less they will be helpful. A perfect example is antibiotics. Antibiotics are generally manufactured using highly selected cultures or recombinant organisms (manipulated at the genetic level) and then purified using a variety of chemical processes. This is fine because it most definitely saves lives, but we then choose to over prescribe them. And what do you know? HEAP kicks in and the organisms become resistant. The idea would be to recognize that this is a really cool thing we can do but since it isn’t our area of expertise and a little far on the hierarchy, we should tread lightly and infrequently.
A list of other violations. Note: mistakes at a really big level are just as bad as those at the very small level.
Really Bad Really Big Mistakes-Sending people or objects into space (death rate for human travelers to space is twice as high as high mountain climbers and an order of magnitude higher than either sea fishing or logging), airplanes, skyscrapers
Big Mistakes-2 ton objects traveling at 60 mph (cars), large single family housing
Small Mistakes-Fire, Genetic Engineering, Chemical Manufacturing, Pesticides, Antibiotics, Solar Panels
Really Bad Really Small Mistakes-Atomic Weapons, Atomic Power plants
HEAP of Stuff to Do
Figure 2 is a reinterpretation of a figure from Odum’s 1996 editorial, Scales of ecological engineering. The idea is that optimally we should be acting within the box. The further that we move away from the box, the less emergy we will likely add to the system and we may even risk disordering the systems we depend upon to live.
Within the box in figure 2, there are two places where humans can gain emergy. I will refer to these as large scale mechanical forces and high quality resources that take large scale mechanical forces to extract or move. Large scale mechanical forces are ones that can result from fast flowing water or high speed winds in the 10 to 60 mph range. Nature seems to be from an empirical standpoint not very adept at capturing these energies. Odum notes the potential emergy extracted from streams in the Pacific Northwest either from human usage or non-human usage and finds that it is better for humans to harness the energy from streams than to let it flow freely for “nature” to use. The resources that require large scale mechanical forces to extract or move are like metal ores (iron, copper, etc), phosphate deposits, earth works to capture water and soil, and dispersal of organisms. Even non-fossil fuel based societies have at time been able to take advantage of the autocatalytic (emergy positive/society ordering in a way that creates a positive feedback loop of extraction) nature of high quality deposits to create tribal or societal pulses.
It maybe that life has not yet had the time to organize systems to completely harness the emergy from these resources. Even life maybe subject to HEAP and it takes a lot of time and energy to properly organize information to capture emergy at different scales. Put another way, it took life 2.5 billion years for life to begin organize from working at the unicellular (picometers to millimeters) to the multicellular level (millimeters to more millimeters) and then another half a billion years to organize from working at the multicellular level to animals (millimeters to meters). While we have had a huge amount of fossil fuels to organize our information, we should not be so glib as to believe we have worked out long term strategies for working in areas far from our particular place in the hierarchy. It may be of particular importance to use fossil fuels to recognize and restore nature’s roles in the hierarchy where society fails to extract more emergy than nature.