Duck Soup: A Sustainable Few

Last week I was mulling the corruption enabled by power in the form of mechanical slaves. We leverage our destructive proclivities with electrical, thermal, chemical, and nuclear energies to do damage on a scale impossible to an unaided creature. (Though, come to think of it, ants and earthworms do move a whole lot of dirt, over time.) Yes, we build-up as well, but the swath of damage always exceeds the creation: logging, mining and manufacturing, for example, to build a home.Along the way I considered the effect of external inputs to a local system, and reasoned that most of what we label "pollution" results from our use of these enablers. Natural systems have evolved to recycle everything and biochemically sequester toxins. That is the process which gradually morphed the very poisonous atmosphere and ocean of the early earth into a fantastic life support system for carbon-based, oxygen breathing folks like us.This led me to realize that a core reason organic farming is less toxic than chemical agriculture is that it tends to rely on substances within the naturally occurring local system. Ideally, a well-managed organic farm would have no need of external sources. Through the use of crop rotation including legumes which fix atmospheric nitrogen (known as green manure) and composting of wastes, such an operation might work entirely on its solar energy income. (Obviously, the sun's energy is an external in the broadest sense - but it is a normal part of the pre-existing biosphere, as is atmospheric nitrogen.) A key necessity in such a system would be returning human manure to the farm - else the loop would remain open: a net drain on fertility.This appears to be a truly sustainable plan -- modeled on the wilderness which agriculture has largely supplanted. Unfortunately, it is probably impossible to completely decouple agriculture from non-solar energy sources and feed the current human population of the planet.The problem involves distribution of food and return of organic waste. Recent studies suggest that it would take twice the currently farmed acreage in the U.S. to provide our present fuel needs from alcohol - leaving no room for growing food. Hydrogen fuel cells can be powered with water which has been split into hydrogen and water with an electric charge -- but the electric cost is high and involves either vast arrays of solar panels or huge wind farms to power the process. (That is, to accomplish the task using renewables.)We have broken out of the natural cycle, clumping population in cities which demand long supply lines, whereas nature's supply lines are short. Oak trees mulch themselves while squirrels, bears and deer convert acorns into fertilizer which is deposited pretty near the source. Nature is thermodynamically conservative. We are squanderers.Over and over we bump into limits of scale. There is great resilience in a biosphere which can absorb the insult of occasional volcanic off-gassing, forest fire smoke, even most meteoric explosions, and remain stable. As we are becoming painfully aware, our recent fossil fuel bingeing has greatly exceeded that absorption capacity.Those who hope to shift human culture to a sustainable path, a way of living within nature's limits, cannot avoid thermodynamic realities. Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, estimate that the earth probably cannot support a modern technological civilization much in excess of 2 billion people over the long term -- barring a radical and extremely unlikely breakthrough in physics. (Even Einstein's genius did not solve this one -- relativity theory just enabled release of more potent poisons.) En route to reducing our present 6 billion by two-thirds we have to traverse the coming boom to 9 or 10 billion by mid-century.Unless we are short-stopped by plague, nuclear holocaust, or cometary impact, we are no less than a century away from that population goal, at best. The road to sustainability goes ever on. If it has been the the road less traveled, it is also a road more quickly traversed when there are less of us to travel it.If we successfully traverse the uncertain century between, the humanity which survives to tell the tale will necessarily be a sustainable few.

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