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


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