Fossil Fuel Based Agricultural Empires

Key Questions:

-What energy were agricultural empires, like the Romans, using?

-What are some historic responses to peak soil?

-What are the keys to a positive response to living in a future without fossil fuels?

The Ground Beneath Civilizations’ Feet

The key to sustaining human life in most of the civilizations throughout history has rested upon the ability to produce a steady supply of crops from agricultural fields. Crops grow in soil that is made of different size rock particles and mixed with decomposed plant and animal organic matter. Small rock particles, clay, and organic matter function to hold nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, phosphate, and calcium, and water through ionic bonds. The organic matter, rock particles, and clay act as a recycling mechanism and trade nutrients back and forth with plants as they grow and die back (Figure 1).  Without sufficient amounts of nutrients or water crops become difficult to grow.


While sufficient organic matter is made relatively quickly by plants, small rock particles or silt, clay, and soil nutrients are replaced much more slowly. Small rock particles, clay and soil nutrients are created by many different mechanisms. The dominant mechanisms for forming these soil constituents are through periodic geological processes, weathering of on-site parent rock, and water and wind deposition of off-site soils. While geological processes, like glacier movement and large ocean height changes, are important to understanding virgin soil formation, they are events that are neither presently occurring on timescales nor in places to be pertinent to understanding the long-term fates of agricultural civilizations. Weathering of parent rock occurs in a bottom-up manner (figure 2, left). The soil forms as the symbiosis of plant roots and fungi exude acidic compounds to break down parent rock, which forms rock particles, clay, and nutrients. Weathering occurs very quickly in shallow soils and begins to slow as the soil horizon becomes deeper. Soil can also be brought in through water movement and wind from other sites, where soil was previously formed by one of the other two soil forming processes. The final depth of a soil is determined by the equilibrium of soil deposition and the erosion of soil from the site. The rate of soil deposition approximates something to figure 2 right. Virgin soils that are over 2 meters deep can take periods of time close to that of other non-renewable resources to form because soil deposition slows with depth (Table Below).

Weathering creating soil

Fossil Resource Time to Form
Oil 10 million years +
Coal 1 million years +
Soil (2m profile) 100,000-1 million years
Fossil Aquifers 1,000-100,000 years
Peat (2m profile) 1,000-10,000 years

Agriculture as Prelude to Strip Mining

The main idea of agriculture is to convert land into people and power. A relatively easy way to accomplish this is to use pioneer plants, like pulses, that store large amounts of carbohydrates and quickly uptake nutrients into their seeds. Additionally, the seed heads can be easily stored, transported, and processed to make food where necessary to maintain a civilization. A key innovation in agriculture is the plow. Civilizations from 1000 BC-1000 AD would use a small single headed plow powered by either human or animal labor and double plowed by plowing once in each direction. Plowing serves two functions. The land is cleared of competing species, which allows for cultivated species to gather more sunlight and water. The second function is to disturb the soil such that some of the stable organic matter is exposed and decomposes. When the negatively charged stable organic matter that was holding onto the positively charged nutrients decomposes, the nutrients are released unbound into the soil. The plants are now able to use less energy to overcome the free energy barrier to pump nutrients into roots. The energy not used in nutrient uptake can instead be put into plant growth and seed formation. Used by both the Greek and Egyptian civilizations, the Romans borrowed their agricultural technologies and coupled it with aqueduct systems. The combination of agriculture and high water usage allowed for Rome to pump carbohydrates and nutrients from fields to cities and armies and then into the Mediterranean Sea or Atlantic Ocean in a single direction without choking on their wastes. While plumbing may have be heralded by our elementary and high school history teachers, it is the last insidious step for complete civilization mining of soils.

The Green Revolution as Prelude to Fracking

Today, global civilization uses nearly the same technologies as the Romans, but with a twist. The plow is no longer able to give plants access to free nutrients. The soils have been completely washed of the nutrients plants need to grow. To remedy this situation, the Green Revolution was born. The revolution in the Green Revolution is to dump massive amounts of unbound nutrients into the soils. The plants certainly uptake some of the nutrients, but many go into the ground water and ocean where organisms proliferate and create dead zones. The soil is now a sink for nutrients instead of the source of nutrients. Our food is now a sink for energy instead of a source of energy.

40 Centuries of Comparative Drudgery: A Positive Response

The beauty of the Roman Empire technology at its height was the massive amount of power brought to bare against anyone that dared to question their hegemony. The dark side of the Roman Empire and other agricultural civilizations was that European soil was turned into “the skeleton of a sick man” (Plato) and the Middle East and Northern Africa became deserts. Asian societies were at first engaged in a similar process as the Romans. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean empires, however, would all prevent complete collapse by stopping empire expansion and creating a large scale economy in human excrement and hence an economy in soil nutrient recycling. The striking aspect of 40 Centuries of Farming is the massive job of having to haul human excrement out of cities and villages everyday and then back to fields where they had to then be applied onto the fields with more intensive labor. These civilizations stopped the one way agricultural carbohydrate and nutrient pump at the cost of having to engage their economies into recycling their wastes on a scale nearly unrivaled in history. Recycling significantly reduces the power of any process. Conventional agriculture cuts off the endogenous recycling of soils and native organisms and gains power. Civilizations use the first 2 meters of fossil soil to gain power and then have the choice of drudgery in recycling and maintaining the last hundred centimeters of renewable soil or oblivion.

Going to the Source: A Positive Response

The mountains are an interesting area in soil formation. The erosion rate is high because of steep slopes and high winds (Figure 3). The Inca Civilization and Seep Holtzer did not run from this, but embraced it. With great erosion also comes great soil formation. Mountains are always weathering and forming soil at a high rate, since the soil profile is shallow. Also the mountains are a large source of nutrients and minerals because of the newly exposed bed rock. Utilizing terraces to catch soil in regions of high soil formation can be very powerful for a civilization. The historical record of the Incan empire’s vast scale and large welfare state is clear evidence to this power.

soil erosion rate

Bonfils-Fukuoka Farming: A Positive Response

Fukuoka developed a method of rice farming in Japan in response to modern agriculture, best described in The Natural Way of Farming (I think a more enjoyable read than the One Straw Revolution). The important points of his method are that rice is planted onto ground that is constantly covered with other plants and organisms and never tilled with the plow. Constant ground cover prevents soil erosion by wind and water and keeps nutrients cycling in the soil. Further, fungi left intact by not plowing and applying pesticides and herbicides have the ability to amplify the root network of rice to draw nutrients from a larger area of soil. This symbiosis of plant and fungus also works to make the plow unnecessary by releasing nutrients locked in rock. Fukuoka estimates there were enough nutrients left in his soil for 12000 years of farming with his method, while most civilizations struggle to make it 1000 years. Marc Bonfils took Fukuoka’s method and applied it to wheat, rye and barley in France. It is described well in the publication The Harmonious Wheatsmith.

Forest Gardening: A Positive Response

Perennial plant based agriculture has begun to catch on in some circles, but not all perennials are created equal. Trees and grasses make symbiotic relationships with different types of fungi, ectomycorrhiza for trees and arbscular for grasses. Trees with ectomycorrhiza can weather rock and draw nutrients out of base rock 10X faster than grasses with arbscular fungi. The reason is that trees form a closer symbiosis with fungi and share energy in a more intimate way (symbiosis might be a future topic, if I can wrap my head around it in an emergy way). Trees also dissipate energy from rain and wind further from soil and protect it from erosion forces. If we remember from Figure 1 that soil deposition is a function of weathering minus erosion, then trees will build soil faster and be the basis for civilization when fossil fuels are unable to pump nutrients into the soil. It is therefore no coincidence that China, Japan, Korea, Tuscany, European countries of the Middle Ages, Seep Holtzer and Bonfils all used trees in their climax phases. We should start now by utilizing trees in a mid-succession forest stage to provide our “food, fiber, fuel, fodder, fun, and pharmaceuticals” (Dave Jacke).

The Ugly, The Bad, and The Good

The Ugly is that most virgin empire building soils are long gone. They are not recoverable in neither human nor civilization time frames. The Bad is that fossil fuels in all forms are reaching their limits. There won’t be energy to keep the Green Revolution going and feeding 7-9 billion people. The Good is that there are positive responses that don’t include the ability to create large waste based empires, since the fossil fuels and virgin soils are gone. China, Japan, and the Incas around the middle of the second millennium may represent a vision of the future. They were able to build large cities, which are important for maximizing civilization power. They were unfortunately beat out by Europeans using coal and oil and may have in a weird way been ahead of their time.

Next Time: Fighting the Ahistorical and UnEmpowering Point of View

Poultry Versus Emergist

Key Questions:

-What kind of poultry should I choose?

-What are the benefits of different types of chickens?

-What are some tricks to protect storages?

This post is about my first year keeping chickens and geese. My knowledge is not very extensive, but I am trying to move from an exploratory phase into something more serious like breeding/improving a specific variety and thought it might help to write it all down. I hope the story is not too dry and hopefully will get to an emergy understanding about keeping poultry in a energy restricted future.

Like a Chicken with It’s Head Cut Off

My life as a chicken owner began about a month after I moved into my current residence. My brother-in-law was nice enough to bring over three 4-5 month old brown sussex chickens, which are supposed to be a great dual breed for both eggs and meat. The property, in which I now reside made me indebted to a large distant bank, but on the upside came with a rather nice chicken coop and a fenced in pig yard. So I took the chickens and threw them into the small already constructed coop with a small fenced in chicken run. I let them out daily to free range and all was well. The hens, about a month after coming to live with me, began to lay 2-3 eggs a day. Having read a few books on chickens and becoming smitten with the idea of moving them around to control insect populations and grass height, I decided to get electric poultry netting. I built an A-frame chicken coop with nesting boxes and four roosting bars, which left ample room for expansion of the flock.

My brother-in-law and sister, being awesome people, ordered a set of 25 more brown sussex chickens for my birthday. I followed all that I had read on raising chicks and had one loss of the 26 sent to me. Then at about 6 weeks a problem presented itself, the chicks were too large for their chick raising area, but too small to be kept behind the electric poultry netting. One of the electric netting test chicks escaped recapture and came back about a week later. I thought to myself, “This is great. The predator population can’t be that bad, if a chick could survive a week out there with no protection.” The chicks were all put into the chicken coop that was formerly used by the older 3 sussex chickens. There they lived without incident for about 6 weeks. Then tragedy struck. All 25 chicks were dispatched in one night. The only evidence that chicks had ever been there were a few wings. The problem arose from the fact that the enclosed chicken run had been staked down with plastic tent stakes and was further exacerbated by the chicks refusal to go into the chicken coop at night. They would sit in one corner of the chicken run every night, which was the exact corner that a fox (?) came into take them away.

Being late in the season, the hatchery that shipped the brown sussex was out of them till next year. Depressed and desperate, I went for the 50 chick special deal. The special deal consists of whatever left over chickens they have on hand after filling the other orders. While not something that I thought would be ideal, it did help my state of mind and again I was desperate in that consumerist kind of way that buying more can only fulfill. To prevent a rerun of the first try at raising chicks, I switched over to using chicken tractors (picture below) inside of electric netting.

The Question of Return

One of the most troubling things about raising any animal, especially poultry, is that they generally require external feed. This feed contains a lot of energy both physically and embodied (all the energy used to fertilize, plant, mine minerals, and ship the bagged feed). Laying chickens generally eat about 80 calories per day and if we add in all the energy spent on fertilizer it might be reasonable to expect 240-800 calories used per day to keep them alive. When assessing the different chicken varieties, the thing that stuck out as most important is that the chicken doesn’t prematurely die before its end use because of the rather high caloric cost to get them to useful size. For meat birds not dying prematurely is about 8-16 weeks and eat a total of 12000-24,000 calories depending on variety and for egg layers there is no cut off for when they are allowed to die and eat about 15,000 calories before they start to lay. The main problem I encountered was keeping them alive during the winter from predators, such as hawks and foxes. During the winter, I moved them from the electric netting into the non-mobile coop already constructed on the property which I reinforced by burying a hardware cloth a foot underground and let them free range in the adjacent woods during the day. The lack of a constant predator deterrent and winter induced hunger in the predator population led to an increase in losses. I have noticed that letting them out of the coop later in the day at 11 A.M. seems to reduce losses. In EPS, Odum suggests that in the future livestock may have to fend for themselves. I don’t think poultry in my climate (zone 7) could fend for themselves, but maybe ones that can better supply for their needs and resist predator pressures might possibly have a place in our futures.

Different Breeds: Worst to Best

Cornish Cross (Meat)- Only two of the five birds survived to 8 weeks. One died within 2 weeks of receiving and the other two died at 5-6 weeks during a hot spell. The two that did survive and were processed looked much like the big grocery store bought chicken. Considering 3/5 died and when they were alive preferred to be positioned between the water and food hoppers, these are great for converting feed (fossil fuels) to meat, but horrible from an emergetic standpoint and have little to no future in an energy limited world.

White Polish (Show?)-Received 2 and both were killed by hawks. I really enjoyed this bird and it was fun watching them run around. Their problem is that they are small and their head feathers block their vision making them hawk food.

white cochinWhite and Black Cochins (Show/Meat?)-This variety is rather large looking and slow moving bird. One of the three was lost to a hawk. The other 2 have stayed alive by being very broody and never straying far from the coop. Not coincidentally, the black cochin was attacked and died in front of the coop door. Egg size averaged 50 mL.

rhode island redRhode Island Red (Egg Laying/Dual)-These have the largest of eggs out of the birds ranked at about 65 mL. Two out of three died due to predation. One to a hawk attack and another to a fox attack. It could just be bad luck, but I also ranked them lower because they seem smaller than speckled sussex.

brown sussexBrown Sussex (Dual)-Egg size is about 55 mL. These are slightly older than the rest, so egg size might not be a fair comparison. One died from a hawk attack, but have been around for a much longer time than the rest.

modern bb game birdModern BB Game Birds (Show?)-I have seen them 3 times in the act of being attacked by a hawk. All three times, they survived to live another day. Their eggs are smallest of the birds evaluated at 47.5 mL. Though the egg size does not seem drastically different, they are not as consistent layers and the other breeds’ eggs may continue to get larger while the game birds’ eggs might be limited by physiology. I ranked them highest because of their amazing ability to survive. Their small size may have led to the increase in attacks, but may have decreased attacks on the other chicken types. Recently, one of the four I received stopped roosting in the coop at night. I see her some mornings before I let the rest of the chickens out for the day. This could be a positive, if she comes home one day with a clutch of chicks.


australop*Australorps (Dual Purpose)-Only received a single female. She survived a hawk attack, which left a tale tell hole in her back. It seems to be healing nicely. Egg size is similar to brown sussex.

P1010523*Light Brahmas-Only received a single female. Acts a lot like other dual purpoase though slightly larger.


Being such a weird mix of birds, picking out the roosters when they were young was not easy. I tried to prepare as many of them before moving the flock into the winter coop as possible, but realized in a short time that I had six roosters in the coop. Six roosters to the original 17 hens was very disruptive. The hens would spread out in all directions to prevent being harassed from the roosters. I prepared four of the roosters, which left me with a Modern BB Game Bird and a Dominique. I saw both the Modern BB Game Bird and Dominique wrestle and survive a hawk attack. The Modern BB Game Bird actually was on top of the hawk when I ran outside after hearing chicken distress calls. The Dominique, on the other hand, hurt a leg badly and died 10 days later.

modern bb game cock

Goosey Goosey Gander

Chickens are great at eating herbs and clover, but tend to skip over all but the most tender of grasses. I ordered 10 Chinese White Geese for grass control. This breed of geese are supposed to lay by volume an equivalent amount of egg to chickens though the number of eggs they lay a year is less and more focused in the spring and early summer. Since they are so hardy, I have left them out in the electric netting all winter. The biggest pain I have is bringing them food and water after all the grass dried up and water hose froze. One trick has been to put one of their water containers under their roofed but open sided shelter. Just blocking the path to the night sky keeps the storage of heat in the water from escaping and hence the water freezing for all but 7-10 days this year. One negative of geese is that they are really loud at about 4 A.M. now that it is mating season. Another is that once grasses go dormant, they are just as dependent upon feed as chickens.

Mothers Don’t Let Emergists Run Their Own Power Grids

I did lose two geese when the solar powered fence charger stopped working properly. The charge was enough to keep predators out, but the geese covered in their comforter worthy insulating feathers started to stick their necks out the netting holes. This made the geese heads like little goose popsicles for some predator. I sent back in the unit thinking it was faulty. I was told that the battery on the system only has a 3 month life and it had out lived its usefulness. I did the math of a 30 dollar battery 4 times a year and quickly bought a few extension cords. Though in a total antithetical move to what I just got through saying, I am going to put a solar electric fence around some bee hives. I am told these kind of 3-6 wire fences don’t use as much electricity and a car battery should last three to five years. I may prove to be a slow learner on this one.

Wrapping Up This Egg Roll/Individual Action

-Leave the foxes and hawks (federally protected) alone. We have a choice between foxes or Lyme’s disease due to increased mouse populations. One “problem” kills a few poultry, the other makes humans miserable. I am going to get more into control circuits and how they should be left to function in a future post.

Hawk attackHawk Attack Wound

FoxFox Coming Back for More

Fox attack sceneFox Attach Scene

-Try to avoid running a power grid, especially when the time you run an electricity surplus (daytime) is the opposite of when you most need it (night when predators are out).

-Keep a rooster or two, which protect the flock and warn you of danger.

-Based on the above assessment, I am going to raise brown sussex. I figure while we have access to fossil fuels, I might as well make use of it. The Modern BB Game Hens though are not as bad as I originally thought they would be in terms of egg laying nor body size and the increased survival rate makes them a great choice for the future.

Next Time: The Roman Empire Running on Fossil Fuels

Our Humpty Dumpty Communities

Key Questions:

-What are the energetics historically of a functional human community?

-Are/How are homicide rates lower than historical norms in the absence of functional communities?

-What are the markers of community’s death?

Scales and Energetics of Human Communities

Human interactions can range from an individual ostensibly fending for themselves to today’s extreme of a hyper-connected global system. The key to understanding the formation of these different states is that they reflect the self organization of people based on the size of incoming flows of energy. Looking at figure 1, the different scales of human interactions have been broken down into five states though more may exist. There is a hierarchical nature to the different stages. The smallest state, the individual, that requires the least amount of energy flow to exist can be found in different forms at all higher states of human organization, but the largest state, the nation state, cannot be found when there is only enough energy for the individual state. Though not exact, it appears that each state of human organization requires approximately a three fold increase in energy flow per capita.

energetics of communityFigure 1

societal heirarchyFigure 2

For most of human evolutionary history (1 million-12,000 years ago) flows of energy to individuals has been relatively modest compared to today’s levels. Humans evolved in an environment using about 5,000 calories in the form of food, clothing, and shelter. 5,000 calories is only enough energy to support a hierarchy consisting of the bottom two levels and to a lesser extent the third level of the societal hierarchy shown below. This means that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are optimized to fit into a community consisting of individuals and centered around the extended family unit. As humans acquired more energy from their environments, higher levels of organization were added on top of the individual and family units. Each successive level of organization creates new controlling energies, known as control circuits, that take the form of governing bodies, laws, and religious doctrine. These control circuits self organize to modify the actions of the levels below to ensure a consistent energy flow necessary to maintain that particular level of organization though not always the mental health and well being of the individual that evolved in a different environment.

One of the best glimpses into what an original human community may have looked like during the first part of human evolutionary trajectory is the Yanomami people of South America. The Yanomami live in large families consisting of about 20-30 people that are for the most part very closely related. The Yanomami have a few communal buildings and for the most part do not have many personal possessions and sleep relatively close to one another. In a famous example, a US anthropology student lived in a Yanomami tribe and married a young Yanomami woman. Eventually, he brought her to live in the US. She would leave the US after staying a few years. One of her reasons (paraphrasing), “Here people wake up in boxes, never see each other, and live isolated lives. At home I woke up everyday and my whole world was around me. I could look around and see my whole family and children playing.” The only time someone from a rural or suburban area in a developed nation might have an analogous feeling is coming home the first time from living in a college dormitory. I personally remember the utter desolation of suburbia coming home the first time for Thanksgiving. The space between myself in bed and the next person seemed palpable. There was no roommate, no roommate’s girlfriend for the night, or even the guy sleeping on the other side of a cinder block wall. Just a lot of empty space. In such close proximity to others, the community can quickly recognize and act on pathological behavior. There is always someone around and up to see what individuals are doing and interact with them.

Siegfried, Roy, and a Tiger

Almost a decade ago there was an infamous case in which one of two trainer tiger act, known as Siegfried and Roy, was mauled by their tiger during a live performance. In interviews after the affair, the trainers’ representatives claimed that the tiger was not acting maliciously, but was trying to protect one of the trainers as they tripped on stage. Whether or not this explanation is true, it seems clear that the tiger was not acting out of the one reason tigers would normally maul a human, to get food. Wise trainers of undomesticated animals always follow the first rule of handling a potentially dangerous animal: Make sure thy animal is well fed. Beyond hunger, the tiger may not have been acting out of the normal repertoire of evolutionary reasons: to obtain food, to obtain a mate, protect itself or territory. This is the rise of a pathological behavior.

Imagine yourself a tiger trainer stepping into a tiger’s cage . The likelihood of survival would depend on many of the factors listed earlier, but for simplicity sake will be termed calorie intake. These calories can be looked at much like today we survive on 250,000 calories but most are not in the form of food consumption. Once basic needs of the tiger are met, the chance of becoming tiger food decrease greatly (figure 3 left); however, while normal evolutionary drives for becoming tiger food drop, new pathological reasons develop. There are many ways to prevent the tiger carrying out pathological behavior. The tiger could be put through rigorous training sessions, could be physically restrained, made physically incapable of carrying out a lethal attack by removing teeth and claws, or chained and caged. The problem with Siegfried and Roy’s show was that its economic utility for spectators depended on the fact that the tiger could act out in a dangerous fashion, so the only control circuit available to them was training.Calories of dangerFigure 3

Stepping into the Human Cage

Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, have spent a lot of time writing books on the decline of violence because of modern day civilization. The crux of their argument is that humans are safer from human on human violence than ever. While their books sell well to people who wish to be told how great they are, their lack of evidence falls flat. There actually exists very little evidence for human on human violence for the first 1 million years of human existence. In their books, they try to extrapolate people like the Yanomami as being non-state and therefore representative of human history. The Yanomami represent impoverished people on the edge of states instead of some primordial human state. Further, Diamond and Pinker fail to use the latest anthropological/archeological evidence to make their cases of high non-state human violence (see this for more in depth argument). They are correct that starting 12,000 years ago, humans became very violent towards one another. This time period coincides with the rise of agriculture, higher human organizational levels, disruption of human scaled communities, and pathological behaviors, ie human on human violence (figure 3 right).

There are two particular points in long-term human caloric intake where human on human violence is relatively low. The first is at 5000 calories, where human communities work out their evolutionary optimized functions. The second starts to occur at about 75,000 calories, which is the blossoming of large nation states. The nation state is much like the tiger trainer above. The amazing energetic flow of fossil fuels has essentially allowed the state to create an amazing array of control circuits. Depending on which nation state you live in, you can expect some of the following: massive prison populations, weapons control laws, massive individual monitoring programs carried out by camera, DNA and digital information collection, state sponsored schooling/education, religious sponsored schooling/education, and social transfer payment programs. These all work to control pathological human behaviors in the absence of functioning communities, but are unable to fix the underlying pathological mental states. However, much like the horror of a trained tiger acting out pathologically, modern day civilization is still struck with tremendous shock when a human acts out pathological behavior, like Columbine, Chinese school stabbing, Norway Island Massacre, and Sandy Hook. It may not be coincidence that the greater number of control circuits, the greater though less frequent the pathological outburst.

The Birth of a Child, the Death of a Community

Today there seems to be little in the way of anything recognizable as communities, because of the way control circuits at levels above the familial unit have altered its functions (see figure 4). If a neighbor develops an illness, it is often asked, “Is there anything I can do without offending them?”, instead of “What can I do to help them?” Looking at the landscape of modern day society, there remain a few stories of a time of a weakened but still persistent community. These stories seem to come to a dead-end at the construction of car passable roadways. Nothing is more telling of the persistence of a community than where children are born and sick are cared for and is instructive of when the community died. In the US, the death of the community has been a boon for pathology (figure 5). In 2000, 2.5 million people were diagnosed with serious mental illness (about 1% of the population), while in 1880, there were about 2500 diagnosed with serious mental illness (about .004% of the population). The nation state utilizing 250,000 calories per person has made us the safest individuals in the past 12,000 years, while leaving us listless in broken communities.

community comparisonFigure 4Birth and death of the communityFigure 5

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

There are no good answers to the problems faced by our lack of community. Not many would want to willingly go back to a world with less energy and therefore: less mobility, less medicine, and less longevity. More importantly with a world population of 7 billion, it is not possible to get a 5,000 human calorie diet with the proper population densities of the distant past. Everyone is on their own to try to create their own communities. This is going to take a lot of mental, physical, and probably fossil fuel energy until limits to growth come into full view. Once we hit these limits, we might find ourselves once again in more fulfilling, yet more dangerous communities.

Individual Action:

-Charles Hugh Smith has some great ideas about ways to physically get started in your community

John Greer (the archdruid report) has been posting recently about the community. While I agree with his assessment of what we should/will do, I disagree with the reasons that brought us here and the previous health of our communities and the costs they imposed.

-Take a hard look at donations to assist people in developing countries to build roads and airstrips. Not that we shouldn’t, but there are true costs to these peoples lives and communities.

Next Time: I take out my macroscope and stare down some chickens and geese living in my yard.

Altruism is Dead, Long Live Altruism

Key Questions:

-What was the standard theory for social behavior and altruism taught at a well respected US public institution circa 2001?

-How can a shared information system be a driver of social behavior and altruism?

At the end of last weeks post, I developed a bit of wordlust (writings version of bloodlust). I meant to end the post something like, “At least the biosphere does not grieve pulsing.” Instead, that sentence pushed me into a rant on altruism and grief. I decided to move back the Burning of Rome and instead refine my thoughts on altruism, social behavior, and community.

Darwin Travels 65,000 km (40,000 miles) and Forgets to Bring a Single Macroscope

Alturism is a central paradox of Darwinism. It would seem impossible for natural selection to favor an allele that results in behavior benefiting other individuals at the expense of the individual bearing the allele. For Darwin (1859:236), the apparent existence of alturism presented a “special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory.” Fortunately he was able to hint at a resolution to the paradox: Selection could favor traits that result in decreased personal fitness if they increase the survival and reproductive success of close relatives Over a hundred years passed, however, before this result was formalized and widely applied.” (Evolutionary Analysis, Prentice Hall, pg 332)

The answer to Darwin’s problem as taught to Biology majors in 2001 was kin selection. The main idea of kin selection is that altruistic behavior arises because individuals will most likely act in an altruistic manor towards those that are most related to the altruistic actor.  An altruistic actor can benefit kin from either slow geographical dispersion, ie an animal will be closest to those it was born to or with, or from some intrinsic signal to help identify kin, eg pheromones. An actual test question and answer taken straight from the power point presentation from that class went something like this: Explain how altruistic behavior can arise in a population? (You may use a diagram to help explain)

kin selection

In the figure above one can see that populations often splinter based on geographical and environmental reasons. Initially, the population was made up of 15% altruistic individuals. Due to some factor the populations split and to dramatize all the altruistic individuals fall into one sub-population and none in the other. The altruistic sub-population grows by 20% due to the presence of the altruistic allele, while the other population has limited population growth. Further, altruistic acts are most likely to affect closely related kin in the sub-populations thus perpetuating the altruistic allele. The sub-populations again merge and now the altruistic allele makes up 16% of the total population. Rinse, wash and repeat until altruism is widespread.

Beekeepers Have Names for Sociopaths: Queens and Drones

In the textbook Evolutionary Analysis, the authors spend about three pages trying to use kin selection as the explanatory basis for eusocial behavior in bees. They show how a queen who mates with a single drone will produce non-mating sisters that are more closely related to each other than to queens or drones so this is why they cooperate, however, in the end conclude that this actually isn’t true for most eusocial insects. The queens mate with multiple drones, which results in non-mating eusocial sisters who may not be more closely related to each other than to the queens.

The above explanation glosses over the advantages of the hive and social behavior. The advantage is the ability to utilize the efficiencies of information when it is shared between individuals. Traditionally, most organisms on Earth rely on the information stored in DNA and RNA or pay a high cost to create information de novo every generation to survive (Figure 2 bottom right). If one were to dissect a hive, it is easy to see that most of the individuals in the hive are involved at one time or another in the collecting and sharing of information to exploit resources like nectar, pollen, hive building materials, and locating new hive locations. This allows bees to focus more energy on resource exploitation than high cost information collection. Hives using shared information have lower costs than if each individual were responsible for finding/creating information (Figure 2 top left). This is particularly advantageous when pollen and nectar sources are constantly changing by the day, so the costs of each individual acquiring information on their own could quickly mount. Queens and drones on the other hand must be kept to a minimum because they neither collect nor share real time information (Figure 2 top right and bottom left). In a hive, there must be enough workers bees sharing information to reap the rewards of low cost communication of information and utilizing a resource versus the costs of finding new information and supporting a colony’s queens and drones.

benefit of shared informationFigure 2

An additional key feature of social behavior and the reason altruism exists is that all stores of information and capital need protection. This protection can be from factors such as random depreciation or resource competitors. In the case of DNA, there are certain parts of the DNA polymerase complex involved in excising improper base pairing that naturally occurs during DNA replication (Figure 3 left). Odum in EPS talks about how police in modern society act to stop the depreciation of physical capital from thieves or vandals (Figure 3 middle). For bees, they defend the hive to the death in order to ensure there are enough individuals and stores of honey to maintain a healthy population to benefit from shared information (Figure 3 right).


Figure 3

Promiscuous Monkeys and Altruism

Altruism presents another evolutionary conundrum: why is altruism so promiscuous? There are examples of gorrillas saving little boys or recently divers saving dolphins. If you have not seen these videos, watch them. When you are a social animal, there is an underlying urge to feel something when confronted by acts of altruism. All social animals want to perform an altruistic act.  Try not to feel something while watching, if you can.

To explain this phenomena, you would need to take an extended five year vacation to the Amazonian Rainforest with a notebook and pair of binoculars. There you will sit with your notebook recording the mating rituals of all sorts of species of monkeys. You note the size, color, and noise patterns of the males and females, known as sexual dimorphism, in relation to how many times a species of monkey makes an attempted mating with either the opposite or same sex of monkey. Your findings will be as follows: the less the sexual dimorphism (males and females look the same), the more times a monkey will mate with its own sex and conversely the greater the sexual dimorphism, the fewer times a monkey will mate with its own sex (Figure 4). There are two good explanations for the ways that these monkeys mate. The first is that when a body plan is under high selection due to predation which reduces sexual dimorphism, it makes sense to mate first and ask questions later. Secondly, mating with everyone can be a great strategy to promote social behavior and not being able to distinguish potential mating partners increases social behavior.


Figure 4

No matter which explanation for the monkeys’ behaviors is true, it is informative to why altruism is so promiscuous. When social animals look at each other, it is hard to tell who holds what information that might be important for survival. If you look at the back cover of EPS in the 21st Century, there is a picture of HT Odum (Figure 5). It might be easy to guess from the picture he is good at tending a small garden, but to surmise that he is the father of Emergy theory, no way. There is no red or green light on our foreheads to inform each other who knows what and so who should be saved. Importantly, would Odum be more likely to help my long term survival as an amazing creator of humus or a great thinker of Emergy Theory?  Social animals have an evolutionary mandate to: preserve information first and ask questions later.  The greater the importance of shared information for survival, the greater the amount of social behavior and altruism (Figure 6).

HT OdumFigure 5

Importance of shared information for survivalFigure 6

Darwin Peers through the Macroscope

Why does the hand feed the mouth? Why does the gene DNA polymerase copy other unrelated genes? Why does social behavior and altruism exist to benefit others? The answer to all of these questions is that: they are parts of a whole system. In each case a seemingly selfless action increases the fitness of itself. The hand feeds the mouth and gains nutrition. DNA polymerase copies other genes and those other genes help DNA polymerase function. Social behavior and altruism exist to help others maintain, collect, process, and share information and benefit the social altruistic actor.

Individual Action:

-Share information. Do it freely and free whenever possible.

-Sharing information includes genetic information. Preferably rare plant seeds, scion wood, and livestock. Not through the swapping of more human DNA, we are not rare and bizarrely closely related.

-Be weary of sociopaths that hoard information.

Next time: Our Humpty Dumpty Communities

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