Gaia Unsuffocating the Earth

Key questions:

-Why is pulsing an optimal strategy in a biological information system?

-Are humans the only ones capable of creating a seemingly disastrous ecosystemic pulse?

-Why is pulsing an optimal strategy in a human information system?

Pulsing as a New Year’s Resolution

Many enjoy working out and many are also in a relationship (life partner, work, or kids), but what strategy should someone if they were to make a New Years resolution to become the best athlete they possibly could in a year? One would want to train but at the same time must spend time with the significant other, hence constrained by time hard choices would need to be made. A solution is proposed, ten minutes a day will accumulate towards working out. How should this time be spent to create the best possible athlete of 2013?

best way to work out

Figure 1. Left The athlete takes the ten minutes s/he gets each day and uses them that day. The end result, while certainly above baseline, does not produce a particularly fit athlete by the end of 2013. Right The athlete saves the ten minutes each day (termed storage) till later in the year and slow ramps up working out. Maybe starting with 10 minutes a day to accumulate muscle tone and stamina. By the end of the year s/he is working out multiple hours a day and at the end of 2013 is significantly more fit than the athlete on the left.

The Pulsing of the Grasshopper

The above example is an “intelligently” designed strategy, but looks amazingly similar to self-organizing biological systems, like a grasshopper population, Figure 2 Left. The population of grasshoppers must certainly take advantage of any available energy flows or else the energy flow will be used by other species. There are, however, distinct advantages to information systems, the grasshopper in this example, that arise from pulsing even in the absence of external competition. One advantage is that the broader information is distributed the slower the depreciation rate of that information. In Figure 2 Right, there is a distribution of the distance different grasshoppers will have moved from the point of origin. The greater the distance a grasshopper goes from the origin the less likely a single grasshopper will have moved that distance. The larger the pulse, the more grasshoppers will have moved large distances from the origin. A pulse allows for enough grasshoppers to move a significant distance over a physical constraint, say over a mountain range, to reconstitute a viable breeding population. The greater the number of viable breeding populations, the less likely that grasshoppers will go extinct. A second reason pulsing can be beneficial is that all information needs to be tested. Large populations allow for testing of information systems on a large number of individuals, which may diminish the effects of random information depreciation, in Biology known as genetic drift, and allows for testing of new rare information, novel mutations/adaptations that lead to diversity. grasshopper pulsingFigure 2

Pulsing at Every Scale

One of my favorite parts of Environment, Power and Society for the 21st Century is when Odum inexplicable leaves in a whole section on the static universe and tired light theory, which is counter to the idea that the universe is expanding and started from a big bang. He explains how black holes could possibly pulse and reset the universe’s level of entropy. I am sure that decades ago when the first iteration of the book was written there may have been evidence supporting the theory, but it would seem like a good section to cut out with today’s current understanding. However, I must say I enjoy mental gymnastics especially on the smallest of foundations, because seriously who likes the twirling ribbons when you have the pommel horse? So with that in mind, I present the following sections:

Human Pulses Seriously Mess with the Climate (No Mental Gymnastics Here!)

Global climate is controlled over long time periods by one major factor, CO2. The global COconcentration is an interplay between temperature, liquid water, how CO2 dissolves rocks when in solution with water, and the Earth out gassing CO2 from volcanoes. This process is known as geological weathering, which can be thought of as: Hotter temperatures equals more CO2 in solution with liquid water dissolving rocks. This causes CO2 to become a balanced soluble form, HCO3 with Mg or Ca ions, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and thus lowers the temperature, i.e. when it is hot it rains, which dissolves rocks making it cooler. The reverse is also true; colder temperatures equals less rain and more time for volcanoes to release CO2 to make it warm. Humans are seriously messing with this system by burning fossil fuels and risk warming the Earth and impairing many ecosystems ability to function.

The Whole Ecosystem Pulses, We Aren’t Alone (It’s Spring Board Time!)

Looking at the global climate and CO2 for the past billion or so years, there is one very key feature: it is crazy! Global temperature is not a straight line or changing based on land mass configurations like one might imagine or in the case of CO2, it is not a gently declining slope that responds to the sun slowly brightening. So what is causing these mood swings beyond the occasional meteor strike or giant volcanic blowout? The conventional idea is that there are changes in either the Earth’s orbit or tilt that make more sunlight hit the Earth’s surface and warm the climate.

But here is where it gets sticky, CO2 never falls below 180-200 ppm no matter what the global temperature is over time so it has to be more than rocks and rain controlling CO2 levels and ultimately climate. 180-200 ppm of CO2 coincidentally is exactly the moment when C3 plants slow their ability to fix carbon from the atmosphere. The plants are somehow able to control atmospheric CO2 concentrations and so the temperature fluctuations seen in the actual climate are gigantic human sized pulses caused by plants. It is not as simple as plants locking up carbon by photosynthesis, because almost as quickly as carbon bonds are made, they are used by some organism. To explain and keep this post from going into overshoot; the plants in a symbiotic relationship with fungi are using CO2 to weather rock to gain macro and micro nutrients locked in the rock. (feel free to follow the link to find out the details)  Just like the entirety of the human information system is conspiring to significantly warm the Earth’s climate by releasing CO2, the biosphere conspires to remove too much CO2 from the atmosphere creating enormous ice sheets covering 30% of the Earth and negatively impacting the productivity of the Earth’s biomes, which I term unsuffocation. During the upslope and climax periods of the pulse, the ecosystem can create a greater amount of species dispersion and diversity than if it were to try to somehow hold CO2 to its global average of 220 ppm, much like our grasshoppers.

Sources Become Sinks and Sinks Become Sources (“Stick the Landing”)

Plants might unsuffocate the Earth, but is a different part of the biosphere capable of an overshoot to explain the warming cycles? One often misunderstood fact about corals and other calcium shelled ocean dwellers is that they are carbon sources. People often think of a simplified equation like the one in Figure 3 Top and do not see its full counterpart Figure 3 Bottom, whereby one CO2 is released into the atmosphere for every CO2 made inert. The best estimate I could find on the internet is that calcium shelled ocean dwellers release CO2 from the ocean at 1/50 our current fossil fuel burning level.  At some point the storage of Ca2+ and HCO3– in the ocean reaches a level where corals release CO2 from the ocean at a nearly parabolic level till it reaches 300 ppm where they run into the negative effect of too little Ca2+ to build their shells or too much ocean acidification, carbon dioxide in solution without the Ca2+ to balance the charge.coral equationFigure 3

A single ecosystemic pulseFigure 4 One ecosystemic pulse driven by corals pumping too much CO2 into the atmosphere, followed by plants using too much CO2

Time is of No Importance, Only Information

No doubt unsuffocation responds to geological, orbital, and cosmological forces, much like the current human information systems are intricately linked to the fact that there are fossil fuels and high quality ores in the ground to be utilized. Our current pulse has spread humanity around the world lowering the chance of extinction and massively expanding the diversity of information as does each progressive round of ecosystem unsuffocation. Contrasting our carbon blowout with unsuffocation, it is clear that our fossil fuel driven overshoot is more rapid and is linked to the fact that fossil fuels per unit are much higher on the energy hierarchy than incident sunlight. The Earth will recover given time from our current pulse. If our overshoot does not go too far, humans will find themselves in every possible corner of the Earth with a diversity of information to choose from to rebuild.

aliens from the fifth element Figure 5 In unarguably the only good ten minutes in The Fifth Element, aliens travel from some distant place in the universe to help humanity defeat a great evil.  But why? 

There is an obvious discrepancy when trying to say biology and human information are the same thing,  most of the ecosystem’s information systems do not grieve constant pulsing and seem content to wait out long timescales to pulse again. Human grieving might be linked to an evolutionary drive to preserve human information systems in any form, because information gives powerful survival advantages. There is no altruism. There is no “other.” This is not some New Age or Ayn Randian treatise. When information was historically only tied up in disparate neural networks, the preservation of our collective information systems demanded heads with breathing lungs and pumping hearts. Just as elephants or gorillas grieve the loss of and act “altruistic” towards those that might hold irreplaceable memories and information, so too humans grieve the loss of and act “altruistic” towards the vessels and manifestations of information systems whether they be other humans or the latest gadgets. Perhaps the biosphere is free from ever feeling grief because it is not dependent upon the physical manifestation of another information system.

snail and tree attack the world

Individual Action:

-Do not fight pulses in all their forms.  Go to bed when it gets dark.

-If we do choose to fight our current pulse and we should, tread carefully. There are strong forces and reasons for pulsing.

-Be more “altruistic,” it is an evolutionary mandate.

PS If you want to read more about Geological Weathering and to see me make a fool of myself in the comment section check out Ugo Bardi’s Gaia Post


Of Information and Humans

Key Questions:

  • What is technology?
  • How current civilization is at the same time the creator of such amazing technologies, yet completely unable to grapple with known limits, such as, peak oil, climate change, and local ecosystem destruction?
  • Why do indigenous people often appear so enlightened from an ecological standpoint compared to modern society?

Everything is Energy

There are two striking things about the concepts contained in emergy analysis:

  1. Everything is energy. In the strict sense E=mc^2, but on a more everyday level everything has a certain amount of energy that went into manufacturing/purifying it. Imagine a good summer rain. There is a certain amount of energy required from the sun to make the water evaporate, turn into a cloud, and eventually fall to the earth.
  2. Energy is hierarchical. The more energy that goes into making something, the more impact it has on a specific system. Take that good summer rain. The higher in altitude it rains, the more energy is required for it to rain. So low lying areas will generally receive more rain than a mountain. The rain that falls near sea level does not have as much energy and per drop of rain will not impact the landscape. A similar drop of rain falling on a mountain has much more energy, so a high altitude rain drop can go into carving great ravines or can drive a generator at an electric power station.

Figure 1rain and energy

Humans and Understanding Our Technologies

Humans have the ability to create amazing technologies. We have our cars, computers, pet rocks, and all other sorts of mechanized creations, but what are all these things really? Each technology is a human created information system. Humans are not the exclusive creators of information systems. Examples of non-human information systems are the naturally occurring DNA/RNA and certain animals have their own less complex information systems, such as, birds, dolphins, whales, monkeys, and great apes.

Information systems have two key features. The first is that they take large amounts of energy to create the first copy, but additional copies take significantly less energy to make. This allows for information to spread rapidly. The second is that since information systems take so much energy to create, it is higher in the energy hierarchy and has the ability to massively impact other systems. Further, the more energy that is used to make the specific information system, the larger the impact it has on other information systems. This has important ramifications for how we perceive the impacts of human information systems. It often can appear humanity’s prowess creating technology is endless, because of its ability to work outside the natural DNA/RNA information system (genetics) and how rapidly it spreads while failing to realize there is an initial high energetic cost for information innovation.

Figure 2information feedbacks

Figure 2 Left) An avian information where a multi-step process is used to turn a stick into a tool. Most animal information systems need a relatively small amount of energy to create compared to the energy accumulated in genetic information and therefore genetics still appears to dominate survival outcomes. Middle) A human for most of the past 200,000 years. Technologies are created using significantly more energy, which start to have a more equal weight on survival outcomes compared to the genetic system. An example is animal husbandry, where humans raise lactating animals, while concomitantly the genetic changes to allow adults to consume lactose. Right) Humans in the last 100-200 years. Recent technological innovation uses massive amounts of energy and has out-sized effects on human timescales compared to the genetic, examples include genetic engineering and mastery of nuclear energy.

How Energy is Utilized within Information Systems

Biological succession, which is controlled by the genetic information system, has been studied since at least the early 1800s. The general concept consists of a disturbed site first being colonized by competitive rapidly growing weedy pioneer species that are later followed by more cooperative slower growing longer lasting climax species. Biological succession allows for the maximum amount of energy usage, generally sunlight. First, pioneer species quickly occupy energy source sites to capture free energy.  It is generally advantageous to maximize energy flow through a system when energy is in excess before switching to a conservation modality.  Once all available energy sites are occupied, then climax species replace the pioneer species that can optimize the fixed amount of energy coming into the site by moving scarce resources between site members. The climax state will remain as long as the energy flow into the system is stable and there is not a disturbance force that removes a large portion of standing capital, like fire or drought.

Figure 3succession

Human information systems as a whole use energy sources in a way that mirrors biological succession. First a new technology is developed that allows for humans to tap a new energy source, like agriculture or oil. There will be an expansion in that particular human population and new uses for that energy which are generally not energy conserving.  Individual maximizing technological use and hence energy out-compete those who do not use technology and available energy.  Eventually, the expansion of energy reaches a plateau as there are no new sites for energy, e.g. no new fields to plow or net energy positive wells to dig. Once a maximal amount of energy flow has been reached, humans switch to conserving and cooperative technologies, e.g. switch in vehicle usage, road laws, gas rationing, and birth of US EPA and Earth Day in the 1970s after the temporary energy plateau of Arab oil embargoes 1967-1979 and the peaking of US oil in 1972. This climax conservation state will last as long as energy flow remain relatively stable. In many human hunter gather and early mixed agrarian societies, energy flows were linked to primary productivity and relatively stable allowing for long lasting periods of conservation climax and seeming enlightenment (top, Fig. 4). If energy flows cannot be maintained and are intermittent or constrained, real capital, such as infrastructure projects and oil rigs, is used in ways where real capital formation is sacrificed to maintain energy flows leading to overall real capital depreciation. This leads to a situation where societal efficiency falls and energy capture devices depreciate with a lag in eventual energy flow declines, which can resemble catastrophic fire in natural system and leads to a quick destruction phase, i.e. the moment when efficiency and energy capture is most needed, these things become scarce (bottom, Fig. 4).

Figure 4.pulsing

The human innovation of extracting energy from fossil fuels led to an expansion of the human population and new information systems. During the pioneer exploitation phase, industrialization was born to quickly utilize any new energy flow mirroring the progression of energy usage in all information systems. Recently, the slowing fossil fuel production and use in most major developed economies suggests our current society is shifting from from a pioneer exploitation phase into a climax conservation stage. This is best seen in the talk/advertisements about “renewable” and “green” technologies and perhaps even the birth of the Occupy Movement. The ability for society to remain in the climax conservation stage will last as long as energy flows can be maintained at current levels.  If a switch to “renewable” energy is possible, then future generations may look back on us as rather enlightened.

Key Takeaways

Human technological innovation is a suite of information systems.  The human suite of information systems, whether it be hunter gather or industrial societies, follows the same pattern as the natural DNA/RNA information system of succession with times of pioneering, climax, destruction, and renewal.  Human information systems will grapple with the limits to energy growth and resource depletion for the duration of the climax and destruction phases, but perhaps not a moment sooner.  In the next post, I will postulate as to why pulsing/succession is the optimal strategy to maximize overall energy flow through time and how the current human information might not be the only information system on Earth that can create ecosystemic collapse.

Individual Action:

  • Interact with climax conservation biological systems (forests, coral reefs)
  • Relearn skills of past human climax conservation civilizations
  • Create a climax conservation biological system, like a forest garden
  • Minimize fossil fuels use both direct and indirect in everyday life