Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Wild Free and Happy sample 83 Update: Human Web

[Note: The following is some new and updated material from my rough draft of Wild, Free, & Happy.  It will be included in the revised Human Web section, which was originally released as samples 52 and 53.  The other samples of this rough draft can be accessed HERE.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd has been reading and recording my book HERE.]

Magical Thinking

Imagine living in an era when bubonic plague epidemics were common and horrific.  Geoffrey Marks noted that the Black Death arrived in England in 1348, and was followed by epidemics in 1349, 1361, 1363, 1365, 1369, 1371, 1373, 1375, 1378-1382, 1390, 1399-1400 …and on and on… until the Great Plague of London in 1665-1666.  Over the course of several months, the Great Plague killed about 100,000, almost a quarter of London’s population. 

In 1772, Daniel Defoe (author of “Robinson Crusoe”) published “A Journal of the Plague Year.”  He was a young boy during the Great Plague, and had a front row seat on the horror show.  As an adult, he interviewed a number of survivors.  His uncle kept diaries during the nightmare.

The city was a fantastically filthy nightmare.  Sewage was dumped in ditches along the streets.  Horseshit and garbage everywhere.  Everyone had lice, bathing was rare, and great mobs of rats enjoyed a wonderful life. 

When folks heard news of an approaching contagion, anyone who had options (nobility, clergy, physicians, officers, etc.) fled London in a great stampede.  Poor folks were left behind to experience what the fates would deliver.

Efforts were made to slow the spread of disease.  When someone was known to be infected (or so suspected), a red cross was painted on the door, and the dwelling was guarded day and night by a watchman, to prevent escapes, and to provide necessities.  Thus, the entire family was condemned to die.  Folks were infuriated, and there were riots. 

Bell ringers moved through the streets, shouting “bring out your dead.”  They were followed by buriers or bearers who loaded the dead carts.  Large pits were dug in which to dump the corpses.  Defoe wrote, “It is impossible to describe the most horrible cries and noise that the poor people would make at their bringing the dead bodies of their children and friends out of the cart.”

Doctors had no cures, and prayers got no response.  Johannes Nohl reported that during plague years, a number of communities in Europe engaged in ceremonial dances, hoping to drive away the evil spirits.  Hundreds danced until they collapsed from exhaustion.  Folks were overwhelmed with despair.  People rolled in filth, begging others to beat them.  “Otherwise modest maidens and matrons lost all sense of shame, sighed, howled, made indecent gestures, and uncovered obscene parts of their bodies.”

It was obvious to everyone that the plague was killing the clergy at especially high rates (it was their job to visit the dying).  Why did God have no interest in protecting his own special agents?  Many priests lived with concubines, an abominable sin.  Did this mean that the baptisms they performed were worthless?  Many lost their faith.  While large crowds danced, the churches sat empty.   A furious mob of Germans went to Li├Ęge, determined to massacre all clergy.

One tradition noted that in 1424, a lad named Maccaber arrived in Paris, and took residence in an ancient tower next to a cemetery.  Folks believed he had supernatural powers.  He initiated an ecclesiastic procession.  Every day, for months, crowds of men and women danced in the cemetery.  Folks wore scary masks to drive away the evil spirits. 

Over time, in many places, during many plagues, folks experimented with a wide variety of rituals.  Despite good intentions, their efforts failed.  The rats and fleas remained alive and well, and the grim reaper worked overtime.  Blind faith in rituals is called magical thinking.  Unfortunately, beautiful wishes don’t always come true. 

Today, of course, global telecommunication systems and the internet allow magical beliefs and assorted conspiracy theories to spread through large populations at astonishing speeds.  Societies become fiercely polarized, echo chambers roar, intolerance punches, courtesy vaporizes, bullets fly, and daily life becomes a surreal tragicomedy.  Elections no longer have losers — every candidate claims victory!

Humanism

Many humans imagine that our species enjoys a superior status in the family of life.  Indeed, many hiss and snarl at the notion that humans are animals (!!).  We are obviously smarter, stronger, and greater in every way!  A number of religious traditions assert that humans are something like the glorious crown of creation, the managers of the world.  Earth is our playground.

These beliefs typically emerged in cultures that became addicted to the exploitation of domesticated plants and/or animals — turbulent societies that cleared forests, planted fields, raised birds and herds, and radically altered (and damaged) the ecosystems they inhabited.

Our wild ancestors were far more humble.  They were hunters and foragers, not planet smashing thunder beings.  Peter Ungar wrote that when an anthropologist in Tanzania asked some Hazda hunters how humans were different from other animals, they were completely baffled.  There is no difference.  What a stupid question!  We all eat, drink, breathe, excrete, wander, and reproduce.  Many carnivores think we’re absolutely delicious, and they eagerly enjoy every opportunity for having us for lunch.

Richard Nelson spent time (1976-77) with the Koyukon people of Alaska.  Their often quoted proverb is: “Every animal knows way more than you do.”  They believe that animals can understand everything we say, regardless of distance.  The Koyukon were not a culture of motor vehicles and glowing screens.  They were a hunting culture that had an amazingly deep understanding of nature, and absolute respect for it.  Modern folks have lost this intimate wild connection to home.  Nelson wrote, “We live alone in an uncaring world of our own creation.” 

David Ehrenfeld wrote The Arrogance of Humanism.  It was an aggressive critique of the widespread belief in human supremacy.  He wrote that humanism was “the dominant religion of our time.”  It’s essentially the air we breathe.  Humans are absolute geniuses, and our technology is amazing.  There is no problem we cannot solve.  We have no limits.  As resources become depleted, we’ll readily develop excellent alternatives.  Our children will enjoy even better lives than our own, and the best is yet to come.  Yippee!

Ehrenfeld wrote back in 1978, when pollution controls, if any, were weak, and the air and waters were heavily contaminated with noxious substances.  The entire city of Gary Indiana was hidden in a stinky orange fog of steel mill filth.  The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire.

In the ’70s, numerous eco-disasters were occurring around the world, but the general mob paid little attention to stuff happening elsewhere — out of sight, out of mind.  Network television avoided the yucky stuff, and hypnotized folks with generous servings of sports, entertainment, and happy news.  School systems tirelessly preached the holy gospel of humanism, and celebrated the age of miracles that students were so lucky to enjoy.

While the thundering human juggernaut was beating the living shit out of the planet, the mob barely noticed.  They were busy polishing their new cars.  Most remained zombie-like cheerleaders of the wonders of modernity, and the beautiful future that laid ahead.

This baffled Ehrenfeld.  Nobody <bleeping> cares!  The poor lad apparently suffered from a devastating incurable mental disorder known as critical thinking.  He was a sick pariah.  Humanist culture has zero respect for hopeless nutjobs, defeatists, misanthropes, oddballs, and doom perverts.

Ehrenfeld shrugged.  “Evidence is growing that the religion of humanity is self-destructive and foolish.  But the more it fails, the greater our faith in it.  We imagine that what we want to happen is actually happening.” 

He was not a misanthrope.  He didn’t hate, distrust, and avoid humans.  Actually, he was an “anti-humanist.”  He detested the ridiculous mass hallucinations — the enthusiastic celebrations of human genius, and the wondrous technological utopia that we have brilliantly created.  We are so lucky to live in the spectacular gushing orgasm of the entire human experience!

Ehrenfeld noted that pure anti-humanists were rare.  Most folks who know how to read have spent their entire lives in fanatical humanist cultures.  We’ve been constantly absorbing humanist ideas for years.  They have deep roots in our minds, and a strong influence on how we think.  It’s sort of pleasant to imagine that we’re on the path to a better tomorrow.  Progress will wash away the pain.

On the other hand, having read a pile of anthropology books, it’s clear that wild folks who lived undisturbed in their traditional way, in their ancestral land, tended to be enthusiastic and shameless anti-humanists.  They seemed to be nearly unanimous in perceiving civilized folks as being absolutely batshit crazy!  How could people be so stupid?  How can they have no respect and reverence for the natural world?  Why are they so aggressive and selfish?

Ehrenfeld wrote that a general rejection of humanism is now long overdue.  It won’t be easy.  Blind faith in humanist hopes and dreams remains strong, and the insanely furious war on the family of life rages on, and on, and on.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Finding the Mother Tree


 

Suzanne Simard wrote an unforgettable book, Finding the Mother Tree.  She was born and raised in the rainforests of British Columbia, and is now a professor of forest ecology.  Her grandfather was a logger who worked back in the low-tech days, when the industry ran on manpower, horsepower, and waterpower. 

At age 20, Simard’s first job was with a logging company.  By that time, the industry was using fossil powered machines — chainsaws, bulldozers, skidders, loaders, trucks, etc.  Selective cutting was being replaced by devastating clear-cuts.

At age 23, she was hired to do research for the British Columbia Forest Service.  They wanted to determine the most effective way to plant seedlings on a clear-cut site.  Government regulations required “free to grow” stocking.  So, prior to planting, herbicides were sprayed to exterminate natural plant life.  Only the moneymaking seedlings were free to grow.

In those days, much of what is now known about forest biology had not yet been discovered.  Consequently, standard industry practices were often based on a blind faith in unproven assumptions.  This wasted a lot of money, and unnecessarily damaged the ecosystem.  The most important business goal was to maximize short-term profits. 

Simard preferred critical thinking to blind faith, and she asked questions that the good old boys never considered.  Vital clues can often be very hard to see.  She paid close attention to the incredibly intricate ways in which forests function.  “My instinct has always been to listen to what living things were saying.”

One of her assignments was to investigate a mysterious situation.  A number of clear-cut sites had been planted with seedlings, and none were healthy.  Plantation after plantation was dying.  She found that all of them had been planted exactly as the rules required.  Seedling roots had to be inserted in mineral soil (sand, silt, clay) because it retained more water and supposedly boosted survival.  Rules prohibited inserting seedling roots in humus.  Humus is a nutrient-rich component of topsoil in old growth forests.  It’s loaded with fungi, worms, bugs, and decomposed organic material. 

Simard noticed that in the dying plantations, seedlings were failing to produce healthy root systems.  On the other hand, in nearby uncontrolled natural woodland, mature trees dropped seeds from which young trees sprouted.  The youngsters grew in humus, and they developed fantastically extensive root systems, intertwined with dense mats of yellow, white, and pink fungi.  This was a crucial discovery! 

So, she created an experimental plantation.  Half of the seedlings were planted in mineral soil (all died), and the other half in humus (all thrived).  Ongoing research confirmed her suspicion that healthy fungi networks were essential for the survival of healthy forests.  Very important!

Industry traditions perceived that the fundamental force of nature was competition — survival of the fittest.  So, industrial forestry was a game of nurturing the most valuable trees, and obliterating everything else.  The downside of this belief was that it was remarkably counterproductive in the real world.

Industry traditions believed that low value alders could reduce the vitality of high value lodgepole pines.  So, alders were chopped down.  Actually, pines loved alder, because alders transformed nitrogen into ammonium, a potent fertilizer that pine roots absorbed via the fungal networks.  Pines not growing near alders were more vulnerable to pine beetles that bored into their bark.  A fungus carried on beetle legs infected the pines, and it prevented water from flowing upward in the trees.  Countless pines died of thirst.

Industry traditions declared birches to be low value junk trees, because they were thought to slow the growth of high value Douglas firs.  Large birch leaves performed more photosynthesis than fir needles, so they were able to convert more sunbeam energy into chemical energy — sugar and other carbs.  As birch foliage expanded, fewer sunbeams could reach the firs.

Birches stored surplus carbs in their roots, where networks of fungi allowed fir trees to tap into it.  The more shade the birch cast, the more sugar it shared with the fir.  Simard eventually realized that this relationship was not a problem.  It was beneficial.  They were working together, like a system.  Healthy birches promoted healthy firs.

She wrote, “Fir can’t survive without birch due to the high risk of infection from Armillaria, and birch can’t survive in the long run without fir because too much nitrogen would accumulate in the soil, causing the soil to acidify.”  When firs are grown alone, up to a third are killed by a root disease. 

In one experiment, Simard grew birch and fir trees together in some stands.  In other stands, firs were grown without birches.  Twenty-one years later, the forest where birch and fir had been grown together had almost twice the productivity of stands with no birches.

The findings of Simard’s research inspired doubts about the validity of some traditions.  She began to suspect that the real life force of forest ecosystems was more like cooperation.  Over time, diverse communities of forest dwelling species apparently coevolved ways of establishing mutually beneficial win/win relationships.  Year after year, her experiments confirmed these suspicions.

She suspected that networks of fungi played a major role in this magic act.  Seeking evidence, she designed experiments to discover how nutrients and moisture were transferred from one tree to another.  This involved using carbon isotopes as tracers, unique identification tags.

The C-12 isotope is natural, C-13 is unnatural but not radioactive, and C-14 is unnatural and radioactive.  Simard inserted C-14 into birch leaves, expecting to find that it flowed into Douglas firs.  It did!  She inserted C-13 into the firs to see if nutrients also flowed from fir to birch.  They did!

When trees are able to intermingle with neighboring trees, they develop lots of beneficial fungi interconnections.  There may be more than 100 species of fungi in a forest.  Some retrieve phosphorus from humus.  Others retrieve nitrogen from decaying wood.  Some carry water.  Others send or receive sugar.  The function of most fungi is unknown.

Simard found that giant trees played an especially important role in healthy forests.  She called them Mother Trees because they nurtured others.  Fires generally roasted understory vegetation, while the taller overstory trees were more likely to survive.  Their bigger crowns captured more sunbeams and produced more carbs.  Larger trees shared their surplus carbs with nearby smaller trees, including those of other species.  Young trees might grow for decades in the shadows. 

Some of the seeds dropped by Mother Trees remain nearby, germinate, and emerge as young trees.  Mothers seem to recognize their genetic offspring, and give them top priority when sharing nutrients.  Unrelated trees, and trees of different species, also receive gifts from Mother Trees.  There seemed to be something like tree to tree communication.  Simard studied a stand of Douglas fir.  Fungi networks connected the older trees to all of the younger trees around them.  Some were as far as 20 meters away (22 yards). 

Simard’s book is a chatty discussion of her life, work, and family.  Its target audience is forestry students, and industry professionals.  Her unconventional ideas remained controversial for a number of years.  Today, her work has been peer reviewed, and is widely accepted.

General readers (like me) will stumble into the unfamiliar names of many plant and fungi species.  I didn’t know the meanings of “mycorrhiza” and “mycelium.”  Both are important categories of fungi species. 

The relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and living trees enabled the survival of both.  Fungi contributed water and soil nutrients to the tree roots.  In return, tree roots provided the fungi with carbs produced by photosynthesis.

Peter Wohlleben fondly described mycelium, the largest living organisms yet discovered.  One in Oregon weighs 660 tons, covers 2,000 acres (800 ha), and is 2,400 years old.  They provide trees with water, nitrogen, and phosphorus — in exchange for sugar and other carbs.

Around the world today, relentless industrial scale forest mining is causing far more catastrophic destruction than ever before.  The global economy has no plans to slam on the brakes.  Humankind demands unlimited lumber, paper products, firewood, etc.  We will eventually win the War on Forests — an idiotic Pyrrhic victory.  My short overview on the history of deforestation is HERE.

Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree, Random House, New York, 2021.  


Thursday, August 18, 2022

Wild Free and Happy Sample 44 Update Nutrients

 [Note: The following is a significant expansion of the soil nutrients discussion of Sample 44.]

 

SOIL NUTRIENTS

All life depends, directly or indirectly, on essentials like sunlight, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, soil, and so on.  In healthy wild ecosystems, these essentials are not depleted.  The magic of evolution nurtures their ability to adapt to changing conditions in the circle dance of life.

Agriculture operates in a far less elegant manner.  It’s a powerful, rowdy, perfectly unnatural, manmade monstrosity.  Its unpredictable mood swings can range from feast to famine, prosperity to oblivion.  In Mary Shelley’s classic horror story, the foolishly clever Dr. Frankenstein got cold shivers when his ghoulish monster turned to him and spoke these words, “You are my creator, but I am your master.”

Wild vegetation excels at recycling essential nutrients.  On the other hand, field crops excel at extracting and exporting nutrients, a slippery clumsy dance of destruction.  For example, phosphorus is transferred from the soil to the corn, from the corn to the hog, from the hog to the human, and finally flushed down the toilet, bye-bye!  Little if any is returned to the field to replenish what was removed from the soil.

Poop is precious.  Remember that.  In 1588, Anzelm Gostomski, a Polish gentleman, once proclaimed an eternal truth: “Manure is worth more than a man with a doctorate.”  In the modern world, every shipment of food that moves from the local countryside to faraway consumers is carrying away essential soil nutrients on a one-way ride, never to return.

To keep a farm operation on life support for as long as possible, efforts must be made to replace the deported nutrients.  Over the centuries, farmers have kept soil fertility on life support by applying stuff like sewage, manure, ashes, lime, bone meal, seaweed, compost, peat moss, guano, synthetic fertilizer, and so on.  In China, human wastes have been used as fertilizers for 5,000 years.  Traditionally, manure has been a popular fertilizer.  Gathering and spreading manure was far more fun than depleting the soil and starving. 

Even modest sized cities could religiously indulge in rituals that recycled holy shit.  In 1909, Franklin Hiram King visited Kyoto, Japan.  While traveling down a road one lovely morning, he observed a long caravan of men pulling cartloads of precious night soil from town.  They were in the process of returning this sacred life giving treasure to the fields where their food was grown. 

Each cart carried six 10-gallon (38 l) covered containers of delightfully fragrant plant food.  King noted that he passed 52 of these carts.  Then, on the return trip, he passed another 61 carts.  Other caravans moved down other roads.  He estimated that 90 tons of sewage was hauled out of town on that morning.  I wonder if this was a daily routine.

With the growth of population and urbanization, returning more and more human poop to fields that were farther and farther away, became impractical.  Eventually, imported fertilizers were able to save the day (temporarily).  Guano, phosphates, and synthetic ammonia were powerful, but nonrenewable.  Unfortunately, they accelerated population growth, forcing the jumbo sized mob to zoom faster down a one-way road to a less than utopian future.

Writing in 2001, when the population was a mere six billion, Vaclav Smil estimated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 existed only because of the intensive use of synthetic ammonia fertilizer.  It had succeeded in shattering the population ceiling (temporarily).

In order to survive in good health, all living plant and animal organisms must acquire the mix of nutrients that are essential for them.  Different species prefer different mixes.  David Montgomery explained that there are three absolutely must-have macronutrients for all plant and animal life (including you), for which there are no substitutes — nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).  General purpose “NPK” fertilizers contain portions of all three.  Humans acquire these essential nutrients by eating plant and/or animal foods. 

Nitrogen (N)

Vaclav Smil noted that all living organisms require carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.  In the world, there are huge quantities of all four, but nitrogen is the oddball.  The air we breathe is about 78 percent nitrogen, but it’s not in a form that most living things can actually use. 

In the air, it’s a gas that consists of tightly bonded pairs of nitrogen atoms (N2) that are too stable to readily intermingle with other atoms.  Before it can be utilized by living organisms, it must be transformed via a process called nitrogen fixation.  In the soil are nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can combine nitrogen and hydrogen to produce ammonia (NH3), a compound that can nourish natural processes.  Ammonia is 82 percent nitrogen.

These bacteria grow on the roots of leguminous plants, like beans, soybeans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, lentils, carob, alfalfa, and clover.  So, when you eat beans, your body is able to absorb the usable nitrogen.  After a legume crop is harvested, the leftover plant material decomposes, releasing fixed nitrogen into the soil, fertilizer for future crops.  This “green manure” is plowed back into the field.

When livestock graze, they absorb usable nitrogen from their food, and then produce “brown manure” that generously boosts soil fertility.  You and I commonly get our nitrogen when we digest the amino acids in high protein foods, including beans, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, eggs, milk, and lean meat.  At the rear end of the process, we expel a potent brown fertilizer called poop.

Old fashioned low tech farming could produce modest harvests when assisted by good luck and determined efforts.  Unlike modern industrial agriculture, old fashioned farm soil only provided modest amounts of usable nitrogen.  Low nitrogen content results in low yields, while high content boosts them.  So, nitrogen is a limiting nutrient, something like the gas pedal in a car.  So is phosphorus.

Ordinary soil generally contains modest amounts of N, P, and K.  Applying additional potassium (K) to the soil does little or nothing to boost crop yields.  But synthetic fertilizers can boost the content of nitrogen and phosphorus beyond normal levels, and this actually promotes bigger harvests.  Of course, bigger harvests can feed larger mobs of hungry humans.  

In the short version of nitrogen history, there were two huge leaps in fertilizer technology — guano and synthetic ammonia. 

Guano is an organic fertilizer created by dense accumulations of bird shit or bat shit.  Seabirds often nest on islands, where they are less vulnerable to pesky predators.  For the same reason, bats prefer to shit in the comfort and privacy of caves. 

Each day, seabirds gobble up lots of yummy anchovies, return to their nesting ground, and happily unload magic excrement.  Century after century, more and more piles of crap grew higher and higher.  Mounds of guano could have nitrogen content ranging from 8 to 21 percent by mass!  Holy shit!

In arid regions, like the Pacific coast of South America, the nesting islands were deeply covered with nutrient rich guano.  Islands off the shore of Peru used to be guano heaven — some deposits were over 200 feet (61 m) deep.  In wetter regions, birds also colonize offshore islands, and shit all over them, but rainy weather and humidity leaches out vital nutrients. 

According to Wikipedia, “The rulers of the Inca Empire greatly valued guano, restricted access to it, and punished any disturbance of the birds with death.”  Guano was used for centuries by indigenous folks.

By the 1840s or so, in Europe and North America, a persistent brutally abusive relationship between farmers and their precious dirt was taking a serious toll on soil fertility.  Meanwhile the mobs of hungry white folks continued snowballing.  How in the <bleep> are we going to feed them?  Trouble ahead!

White folks first learned about magic guano in 1802, via the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, which were translated into several languages.  Eventually, some ambitious lads experienced a breathtaking revelation.  Holy shit!  We could become filthy rich guano tycoons! 

As we all know, money is a devilish hallucinogen that can turn kind and decent people into batshit crazy idiots.  Consequently, humankind began a dramatic transition from traditional food production that utilized local manure, into a fast lane powered by imported bird shit.  In some locations, the guano had an exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.  It greatly excited the productivity of field crops.

And so, in the nineteenth century, guano was the world’s super fertilizer, and a source of great wealth.  A guano gold rush was born.  Nations vigorously competed to claim ownership of guano islands.  Disputes triggered the War of the Pacific (1879-1884).

Traditions got tossed on the compost pile.  Farmers no longer had to devote lots of time to nutrient recycling.  They didn’t need to plant cover crops of nitrogen fixing legumes, or do crop rotations.  They could simply buy what they needed, magic bird shit, harvest far greater yields, and get rich quick.

Industrial scale guano mining was extremely disruptive to the seabirds that squirted out the valuable shit.  On Peru’s guano islands, bird populations plummeted from the 53 million in the late 1800s to just 4.2 million in 2011.

Of course, guano was a finite resource created over the passage of countless millennia, and it was being extracted as fast as humanly possible.  Production peaked around 1870.  Insatiable greed heads then directed their attention to the saltpeter deposits in the deserts of Chile.  Saltpeter is sodium nitrate, a compound that contained usable nitrogen. 

J. R. McNeill noted that by 1900, German farmers were highly dependent on imported guano.  Without it, they could no longer feed the growing mob of hungry Germans.  Gosh!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could produce fixed nitrogen on an industrial scale?  Could it be possible?  Yes!  Unfortunately, two Germans figured out how.

Synthetic Ammonia.  I’d now like to introduce you to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.  In 1909, chemist Fritz Haber invented a process that could extract nitrogen from the air (N2), mix it with natural gas (CH4), and embed it in ammonia (NH3), via an energy-guzzling process of high heat and pressure.  Synthetic ammonia created a sharp turn in human history.  (Years later, Haber invented Zyklon B, the poison used in Nazi gas chambers.) 

Carl Bosch figured out how to perform this catalytic process on an industrial scale.  Haber and Bosch opened the first ammonia plant in Germany in 1911. 

Ammonia was also a feedstock for explosives, which were in high demand for countless bloody military adventures.  So, many new ammonia plants were built.  At the end of World War II, large quantities of ammonia became available for other uses, and the production of synthetic ammonia fertilizer soared.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the production of synthetic NPK fertilizers skyrocketed: 4 million tons in 1940, 40 million tons in 1965, and 150 million tons in 1990.  Far more food was produced, and the human population grew at an explosive rate.

Today, the intended benefits of these fertilizers are maxing out — applying more of it to a field no longer increases the size of the harvest.  But the potent fertilizer runoff is able to continue increasing the contamination of groundwater, rivers, coastal dead zones, and oceans.

Richard Manning noted that when farmers apply synthetic fertilizer on a field, less than half of it is absorbed by crop plants.  Fertilizer can acidify the soil.  Some of it dissolves and contaminates the groundwater that folks drink, and lots of it runs off into waterways.  Much of the U.S. Corn Belt drains into the Mississippi River, which is an ecological catastrophe. 

Fertilizer runoff stimulates the growth of algal blooms.  As the blooms die, they consume oxygen and emit CO2.  As the oxygen content of the water is depleted (anoxia), this can cause everything to die (eutrophication).  The Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.  The Baltic Sea is home to seven of the of the world's ten largest marine dead zones.  About half of U.S. lakes have low oxygen content, and the number of dead zones in the world continues growing (415 in 2022).

The National Science Foundation reported that fertilizer runoff is increasing the nitrogen content in rivers and streams, where microbes convert it into nitrous oxide (N2O), “a potent greenhouse gas, with a warming potential of approximately 300 times that of carbon dioxide.”  Nitrous oxide persists in the atmosphere a long time, and promotes global warming and acid rain (it’s also a pain reliever, laughing gas).  Cow shit is another source of nitrous oxide emissions, and their belches are a significant source of methane.

In the twentieth century, global population skyrocketed at a rate similar to the rapid increase in fertilizer use.  Nitrogen and phosphorus are limiting nutrients, and synthetic fertilizers exceled at sweeping away longstanding limits to crop productivity.  Julian Cribb wrote that the wellbeing of most of humankind is now heavily reliant on the use of these potent fertilizers to assure adequate food harvests.

Today, about 80 percent of synthetic ammonia is made using a natural gas feedstock — a finite nonrenewable fossil energy resource.  As natural gas prices rise, so will the cost of nitrogen fertilizer, which will increase the cost of food.  Political instability in the world is increasing.  A few nations have abundant reserves of gas, while all nations are dependent on reliable access to food.  This presents many opportunities for heavy handed dog-eat-dog mischief.

Phosphorus (P)

Like nitrogen, phosphorus is also a limiting nutrient.  It is always found in mixed compounds, never in pure form.  Much of the P in soil is in a form that plants cannot use.  This puts a firm ceiling on crop productivity.  In NPK fertilizers, usable P is provided by phosphate (P2O5), a mineral compound. 

When phosphate is applied to a field, crop yields are boosted.  When it runs off cropland into bodies of water, it can trigger eutrophication.  Phosphorus enters your body at the mouth, and departs via urine and excrement.  It’s possible to recover it from sewage and manure, but not cheap.  When mixed 50/50 with water, your urine is an excellent liquid fertilizer that contains both nitrogen and phosphorus — and it’s free.  Waste not!

Fred Pearce noted that every living cell needs P, and there is no substitute.  It’s as essential to plant life as water is.  We are great at misusing it, suck at recycling it, and it’s vital for feeding humans and other critters.  Each year, the world mines 170 million tons of phosphate.

The world’s primary source of phosphate rock is an open-cast mine in the Western Sahara, a region currently controlled by Morocco — an unpleasant situation that irritates the native Saharans.  Political instability in the region could disrupt the production and distribution of phosphate, and generate a food crisis in many nations. 

So, demand is rising, most of the world’s best phosphate reserves are gone, and those that remain are in just a handful of countries.  Most of these reserves are in hard rock form, which requires vastly more fossil energy to mine and process.  There are also large deposits of phosphates in deep sea locations, but mining them would be deeply expensive. 

When will phosphate production peak?  That’s a highly contentious question, because accurately estimating the remaining reserves requires lots of guesswork.  Today, of the three essential NPK nutrients, P is the most worrisome to experts. 

Just as I was about to send this info to the world, my faithful muse gave me a dope slap and directed me to an important research paper.  It’s written in super-cryptic science jargon, and ordinary readers (like me) may suffer some permanent brain damage, but it’s a fascinating horror story.

Christine Alewell and team put a spotlight on the latest news.  If global heating doesn’t blindside industrial civilization, phosphorus depletion will.  Big Mama Nature brilliantly guided the evolution of wild ecosystems that did a wonderful job of protecting precious topsoil and perpetually recycling essential nutrients.  Sadly, cleverness has pulled the rug out from under this delicate balancing act.  The tilling of agricultural soils eliminates the protective covering of wild vegetation, and exposes the delicate treasure below.

When P is not locked within solid rock, its water soluble.  When rain splatters directly on pulverized farm soil, gravity carries the P runoff elsewhere, like wetlands and streams.  Erosion causes about half of the P depletion in farm soil.  As P content decreases, so does the productivity of the field.  Harvests shrink.

Alewell noted, “The world’s soils are currently being depleted in P in spite of high chemical fertilizer input.”  In poor countries, where folks can’t afford potent fertilizer, the rate of P depletion is even higher.  In the long run, agriculture is not sustainable.  “Soil phosphorus (P) loss from agricultural systems will limit food and feed production in the future.”

To continue producing chemical fertilizer requires continued mining of nonrenewable geological deposits of P, an increasingly limited resource.  The P moves in a one-way flow from the mines, to the agricultural land, into freshwaters, and finally into oceans.

The “organic management” of P is also unsustainable.  A cornfield extracts P from the soil.  Then, the harvested grain is sent somewhere else, along with its P content.  Added manure and compost won’t replace all of the P exported.  Similarly, livestock grazing extracts the P from the greenery consumed.  Some of it is returned to the land via manure and urine, but some of it is sent away to the meat processor, never to return.

Potassium (K)

In plants, potassium is important for the synthesis of protein.  The potassium component of NPK fertilizer is provided by a variety of minerals rich in potash (K2O) that are found in the salt beds of ancient seas and lakes.  The K added to NPK fertilizer comes from nonrenewable mined sources.  David Montgomery noted that “potassium occurs in rocks almost everywhere in forms readily used as natural fertilizer.”  We don’t have to worry about near term potassium shortages.  Lots of other future crises are closer to the front of the line.

Toxic Sludge

Abby Rockefeller wrote a fascinating essay that thoroughly explored the long and exciting history of human pooping and peeing.  In modern cities, sewage treatment plants regularly generate sludge, which has to be removed and put somewhere.  Somewhere is often cropland. 

Besides the holy shit that happily splashes in your toilet, sludge also contains lots of weird stuff produced by industrial civilization.  For example, volatiles, organic solids, disease-causing pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, and toxic organic chemicals from industrial wastes, household chemicals, and pesticides.  Crops grown in fields treated with toxic sludge produce foods that may be less than wholesome.

BOTTOM LINE:  Bill McGuire reported that intensive industrial agriculture is depleting the quality of cropland soils.  In many parts of the world, including in the U.K., E.U., and the U.S., these soils are becoming “effectively sterile in the absence of regular fixes of artificial fertilizer.”  No free lunch.  No sustainable agriculture.  But eight billion get to pee and poop every day (for a while).  Hooray! 


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Wild Free and Happy Sample 44 Update

 [Note: The following is a significant expansion of the Soil Destruction section of Sample 44.]

SOIL DESTRUCTION

Spencer Wells lamented the transition to food production, when folks shifted from foraging to farming and herding.  “Instead of being along for the ride, we climbed into the driver’s seat.”  Richard Manning agreed.  He said that in the good old days, “we didn’t grow food; food grew.”  Food production took an increasing toll on the soil.  Folks didn’t fully understand the consequences of what they were doing. 

In the good old days, wild ecosystems were complex communities of plants and animals.  These wild communities coevolved over time, which kept them fine-tuned for long term survival in ever changing local conditions.  Believe it or not, they could thrive, century after century, without irrigation systems, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, fossil powered machinery, human stewards, and so on.

With the transition to plant and animal domestication, humans could produce greater quantities of food, and feed more mouths.  But the artificial ecosystems they created (cropland and pasture) commonly reduced natural biodiversity, encouraged erosion, and depleted soil fertility.

Walter Youngquist wrote that the average depth of the world’s topsoil is less than 12 inches (30 cm).  He added that almost all modern folks consider oil to be a vital strategic resource.  Oddly, far fewer have a profound appreciation for soil, the most precious mineral treasure of all.  For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors left fossil hydrocarbons in the ground, where they belong.  Soil is vital for the survival of the entire family of life — yesterday, today, and forever after.

He warned that, from a human timeframe, topsoil is a nonrenewable resource, because new topsoil is created over the passage of centuries, on a geological timeframe.  “Overall, one-third of the topsoil on U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years.”  Humans are destroying it far faster than nature creates it. 

Youngquist mentioned the work of Peter Salonius, a soil scientist who performed 44 years of research.  Salonius came to the conclusion that all extractive agriculture, from ancient times to the present, is unsustainable.  Environmental history clearly supports his conclusion. 

Writing in 2000, J. R. McNeill wrote that the U.S. was currently losing 1.7 billion tons of topsoil per year to erosion.  At that time, there were 281 million Americans.  So, the loss would have been six tons per person.  Writing in 2007, David Montgomery noted that each year, the world was losing 24 billion tons of soil.  In 2015, Joel Bourne reported that every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of world cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development. 

Richard Manning wrote, “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture.  It does not exist.”  David Montgomery agreed.  “Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East.  With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.”

Tobacco

Dale and Carter wrote a history of humankind’s war on soil.  Immigrants who colonized the U.S. behaved much like civilized colonists throughout history.  “They caused more waste and ruin in a shorter time than any people before them because they had more land to exploit and better equipment with which to exploit it.  Some ruined their land because they knew no better, and others destroyed out of greed for immediate profits, but most of them did it because it seemed the easiest thing to do.”

David Montgomery described the farmers of early America.  Tobacco was a goldmine, because it reaped six times more income than any other crop, and it could be shipped across the Atlantic and arrive in perfect condition. 

Growing tobacco was labor intensive, and slaves provided the muscle power.  It was also a heavy feeder on soil nutrients.  A farmer could make great money for three or four crops, after which the soil was severely depleted. 

At that point, they often abandoned the useless fields, and cleared forest to create new ones, for another round of jackpot moneymaking.  It was easier and more profitable.  In the early days, frontier land was abundant and cost little or nothing.

Back in Europe, it was foolish to greedily treat topsoil like a rape and run disposable resource.  Over time, agriculture had eventually collided with serious limits, when it was no longer easy to expand cropland area by exterminating forests.  So, respectful consideration was given to future generations of descendants, who wouldn’t enjoy inheriting a (%@&#!) wasteland.  Each generation deliberately made efforts to slow soil deterioration by regularly adding manure, compost, leaves, crushed bone, and other fertilizers.  Soil was treated like gold.

On the other hand, in early America, ambitious high achievers thought that being conservative stewards of the land was ridiculously stupid.  Livestock was needed to produce manure, and livestock required pasture.  Tobacco acres earned big money fast, and pasture acres did not.  Profit was their god word.

Cotton

Clive Ponting noted that a bit after the tobacco boom, the cotton gin made it more profitable to manufacture cotton fabric, rather than wool.  Cotton became a new goldmine for farmers and slave traders.  In Africa, slaves were often purchased by trading cotton cloth for them.  Like tobacco, cotton was very hard on the soil.  Compared to a food crop, it extracted 11 times the nitrogen, and 36 times the phosphorus.  Between 1815 and 1860, cotton was 50 percent of U.S. exports.

As with tobacco, depleted cotton fields were abandoned, and farm country migrated westward, as it devoured ancient forests.  It was cheaper, easier, and more profitable to move on, so they did.  David Montgomery described how these folks broke every cardinal rule of careful land stewardship.  Farmers did continuous planting without crop rotation, used little or no manure, and plowed straight up and down hills (not contour plowing). 

Highly explosive ignorance resulted in painful lessons and enduring destruction.  Stripping away the forests in hill country deleted what had held the soil in place for thousands of years.  Damage was extreme in the Piedmont belt of the southeastern U.S.  Further north, the wreckage was a bit lighter, because snow protected the soil during winter months.  But in the south, heavy rains were common.  Some regions eventually lost most of their soil, exposing portions of bedrock.  

Shockingly huge gullies were created in the wake of deforestation.  In Alabama, gullies up to 80 feet (24 m) deep soon followed land clearance.  One erosion gully near Macon, Georgia was 50 feet deep (15 m), 200 feet across (61 m), and 300 yards long (274 m).  Montgomery wrote, “By the early 1900s, more than five million acres of formerly cultivated land in the South lay idle because of the detrimental effects of soil erosion.”

Dust Bowl

As the colonization of the U.S. proceeded, folks continued migrating westward, moving beyond forested regions to the open prairies.  They perceived prairies to be wastelands, because they were largely treeless.  Many pushed onward toward Oregon, hoping to settle in lands having fertile soil.  In the process, they skipped right past the tallgrass prairie, home to the nation’s most fertile soil by far.  Eventually, they realized their mistake, and the primo tallgrass belt was settled. 

Latecomers got the less desirable shortgrass prairie, which had highly fertile soil, but it was lighter in texture, and more vulnerable to erosion.  In shortgrass country, strong winds and periodic droughts were normal and common, but evolution had fine-tuned the wild ecosystem to survive these conditions.

The natural vegetation was drought tolerant, retained moisture, and kept the soil from blowing away.  Unfortunately, the settlers brought state of the art steel plows, and proceeded to strip the vegetation off the land, and expose the precious soil.  Unintentional foolishness led to catastrophe.

David Montgomery mentioned a 1902 report by the U.S. Geological Survey that classified the high plains as being suitable for grazing, but not farming.  It was “hopelessly nonagricultural” because it was ridiculously prone to erosion.  Gullible farmers were encouraged by sleazy speculators to settle on the land and get rich quick.  And many did, for a while.

Walter Lowdermilk wrote that much of the time between 1900 and 1930 was a highly unusual period of above average precipitation.  During the wet years, farmers enjoyed big harvests and generous profits.  Wheat could do well in the shortgrass climate, and a thriving wheat field protected the fragile soil from erosion.  But in drought years, the wheat withered, and there was nothing to hold the soil in place when the winds began howling.

  Tractors were the latest cool gizmo.  A lad with a tractor could farm 15 times more land than a lad who used draft animals.  Cropland area greatly expanded, exposing more and more soil, which the winds carried away.  The stage was set for the Dust Bowl. 

Marc Reisner wrote, “The first of the storms blew through South Dakota on November 11, 1933.  By nightfall, some farms had lost nearly all of their topsoil.  At ten o’ clock the next morning, the sky was still pitch black.  People were vomiting dirt.”

“If not the worst man-made disaster in history, it was, at least, the quickest.”  From 1934 to 1938, there were numerous huge dust storms, “black blizzards” that could turn day into night.  In 1934, congressmen in Washington D.C. went outside to watch the sky darken at noon.  The jet stream carried dust across the ocean to Europe. 

In many regions, more than 75 percent of the topsoil was blown away by the end of the 1930s.  The Department of Agriculture estimated that 50 million acres of farmland had been ruined and abandoned during the Dust Bowl. 

Invisible Disaster

Humankind’s war on soil continues, and we’re winning.  In a 2012 article in Time magazine, John Crawford, a risk analysis expert, wrote that “A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left.  Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded — the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone.”  [LOOK]

In some locations, visible evidence of this loss is obvious, in large clouds of dust, ghastly erosion gullies, or rain shower runoff that looks like chocolate milk.  In other places, the loss may not be readily visible during a lifetime.  When you gaze at a large field, decade after decade, you might not notice the gradual loss of tons of soil. 

Walter Youngquist mentioned a study finding that when one hectare of land lost six metric tons of soil, the surface of the soil dropped just one millimeter.  He thought that erosion was similar to cancer, a persistent intensifying destroyer.

Soils with less humus absorb less water, which increases runoff and soil loss.  Light soils are more likely to disappear than dense soils.  Sloped land is most prone to erosion.  Some regions of Europe typically receive gentle rain showers, while some locations in the U.S. often receive heavy cloudbursts.  Of course, wild grasslands and forests excel at absorbing moisture, building humus, and retaining soil. 

When forest is cleared, or grassland is plowed, the soil is exposed to incoming sunlight.  As the soil warms up, microbial activity is stimulated, which accelerates the oxidation of the carbon-rich humus.  Precious carbon built up over the passage of years is dispersed into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.  Soil fertility declines, and will not be promptly restored, if ever. 

All tilling, to varying degrees, degrades or destroys soil.  The healthy green blanket of natural vegetation that protects the precious topsoil is entirely torn off the face of the land.  The soil dries out, hardens, and absorbs less precipitation, which accelerates runoff.  This increases the chances of sheet erosion, gullying, landslides, and flooding.  It can sometimes take centuries for nature to replace the unprotected topsoil lost in a stormy hour. 

Long ago, the Mediterranean basin became a hotbed of civilizations as agriculture spread westward out of Mesopotamia.  The Mediterranean climate provided heavy winter rains, making it a suitable place to grow wheat and barley.  Much of the basin was sloped land, which was extensively deforested over time, driven by growing demand for lumber and firewood. 

Flocks of sheep and goats roaming on the clear-cut hillsides overgrazed, encouraged erosion, and prevented forest recovery.  By and by, the rains leached out the nutrients, and washed much of the fertile soil off the hillsides.  In many locations, bare bedrock now basks in the warm sunshine, where ancient forests once thrived in ancient soils.

Carter and Dale noted that, in the good old days, the Mediterranean used to be among the most prosperous and progressive regions in the world.  But when they wrote in 1955, most of the formerly successful civilizations had become backward, or extinct.  Many had just a half or a third of their former populations.  Most of their citizens had a low standard of living, compared to affluent societies.

Montgomery noted that these ancient civilizations often enjoyed a few centuries of prosperity, as they nuked their ecosystems.  Sadly, the soils of the Mediterranean basin were heavily damaged by 2,000 years ago, and they remain wrecked today.  They are quite likely to remain wrecked for many, many thousands of years.  Much of the region that once fed millions is a desert today.

I never learned any of this in school.  Instead, this region was celebrated as the glorious birthplace of civilization, democracy, culture, and science.  It had incredible architecture and dazzling artwork.  It was home to brilliant writers and philosophers (no mention of slaves).  Many of our public buildings today, with their ornate marble columns, pay homage to this era when we first got really good at living way too hard.

Of course, progress never sleeps.  In 2000, J. R. McNeill published a fascinating (and sobering) book on the environmental history of the twentieth century, when cultures blind drunk on gushers of cheap oil spurred a population explosion that probably caused the most destruction to Earth since the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.

In a 2014 book, McNeill narrowed his focus to the catastrophic changes that have occurred since 1945.  He noted that in the world, about 430 million hectares (seven times the size of Texas) has been irreversibly destroyed by accelerated erosion.  “Between 1945 and 1975, farmland area equivalent to Nebraska or the United Kingdom was paved over.”  By 1978, erosion had caused the abandonment of 31 percent of all arable land in China.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Nonrenewable Geology

 These days, we are constantly assured that our leaders and experts will do what’s necessary to promptly eliminate climate change, and open the gate to a clean green renewable utopia.  A golden bonus is that spending staggering amounts of money to radically alter the energy-related infrastructure of the entire world will be great for the economy, thrill investors, and create jobs, jobs, jobs!  If we have a fervent blind faith in this miracle, we can relax, keep our lives on autopilot, and shop till we drop.

According to bright green dreams, the answer to all our prayers is to simply abandon fossil energy right away, and power the global economy with wholesome carbon-free renewable electricity.  Not everyone agrees.  The mainstream media, and many environmental activists, have yet to acknowledge the grumpy skeptics who assert that it’s impossible for today’s industrial civilization, as we know it, to be entirely powered by any flavor of electricity, whether renewable or conventional.

Megan Seibert and William E. Rees explained why.  Their report relied heavily on research by Alice Friedemann.  Only fossil fuel can generate the intense heat needed to mass produce stuff like steel, concrete, silicon, and so on.  It’s also essential for keeping the current transport system on life support (trucks, trains, ships, planes, cars, etc.) — both manufacturing the machines, and fueling their lifetime operation.  A team led by Derrick Jensen focused additional attention on bright green hopium.

And now, at long last (sorry!), I shall get to the point of my message.  I recently learned about a thousand page report created by the Geological Survey of Finland, a government agency that employs 400 experts.  Geologists don’t believe in miracles, they believe in minerals — finite nonrenewable substances, resources that are diminished with each scoop of the power shovels.  Every passing year, the reserves get smaller, lower in quality, and more expensive to extract.

The Finnish geologists wondered if seemingly unbelievable miracles were actually possible in reality.  They contemplated what modifications would be needed to 2019 technology, in order to create a perfectly sustainable utopia by 2050.  The theoretical transition required super-massive global changes to be made in an unimaginably super-speedy manner.

The heroic geologists stumbled upon an important discovery.  One minor detail had somehow been overlooked by the clean green renewable dreamers.  Their primary focus had been on carbon, climate, positive thinking, and saving the world.  It seems there was little or no awareness that the miraculous global transition required huge amounts of specific minerals.  Some of the essential minerals were needed in quantities that far exceeded the world’s known resources and reserves.  The titanic dream smacked into an iceberg.  The geologist’s report focused on three subject areas: transport, electricity generation, and industrial manufacturing. 

[A quick vocabulary lesson.  “Reserves” are the amount of a resource that can profitably be extracted with existing technology at current prices.  “Resources” are the currently known amount of a resource, only a portion of which can be considered reserves.]

The Finnish report explained that the planet-thrashing monster we have created took more than a century to become uncontrollably catastrophic.  It was only made possible by guzzling staggering amounts of cheap and abundant oil, an extremely energy dense fuel.  Our monster has devoured massive amounts of high quality mineral resources.  At the peak of the joyride, folks in wealthy nations enjoyed a fantastic orgy of utterly idiotic waste.

And now, the monster must be ethically euthanized as soon as possible.  Energy is no longer cheap.  Mineral resources are lower in quality, and far less abundant.  Financial systems are loaded with debts, and full of surprises.  The planet’s ecosystems are disintegrating in front of our eyes, as the population explosion continues soaring.  World leaders are busy butting heads, shooting missiles, and cutting throats.  Alas, the Finnish geologists are not giddy with optimism for a quick and easy bright green future.

In the global energy system of 2018, fossil fuels provided 84.7% of the power, nuclear was 10.1%, and renewables were just 4.05% (solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, biofuels, etc.).  In other words, nonrenewable energy (fossil + nuke) provided about 95% of the monster’s life force.  The geologists focused on energy processes that involved minerals.  So, they didn’t mention humankind’s original energy resource, muscle power — it’s not a wildly exciting alternative, but it has a promising future.  Imagine everyone wearing bright green MAWA hats (Make America Walk Again).

Obviously, transport systems should rapidly eliminate carbon belching Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) technology.  Most green dreamers envision a shift to Electric Vehicle (EV) technology that utilizes rechargeable batteries or fuel cells.

EVs are a very trendy idea today.  Battery powered EVs are charged with electricity from the grid.  But if the grid is delivering electricity that’s maybe 95% nonrenewable, that’s what their batteries will be charged with.  How green is that?  Of course, an EV’s frame, fenders, battery, motor, etc., are not made of harmless green fairy dust.  Neither are solar panels, wind turbines, or roadways made of asphalt or concrete.  Walking has far less impact.

Fuel cell powered EVs use a chemical reaction to generate electricity from hydrogen.  During operation, they emit only water.  Hydrogen in pure form does not exist in the natural world.  Energy is required to separate hydrogen from other compounds.  The U.S. Department of Energy says that about 95% of hydrogen is made by processing natural gas (CH4).  The Finnish report mentioned an uncomfortable fact: “A potential downside is that much less electricity is harvested from hydrogen in a fuel cell than the electricity required to produce that same volume of hydrogen.”

In 2019, the global transport fleet included about 1.416 billion cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles, of which 1.39 billion were ICE.  These ICE machines need to be sent to the crusher as soon as possible.  Is it possible (or ecologically intelligent) to replace them with EVs?

Batteries are a serious challenge for both transport and electricity generation.  I’ll chat more about batteries shortly.  First, let’s take a peek at electricity generation.  It produces energy that is the life force of the grid, the stuff that lights the night, powers appliances, and entrances glowing screen zombies.  As mentioned, electricity generation is currently fueled by energy that is maybe 95% nonrenewable, a huge drawback.

Currently, the grid is designed to reliably distribute electricity from large centralized power plants, something like a hub and spokes.  A renewable energy grid would have to distribute electricity produced by numerous, smaller, widely dispersed facilities (wind and/or solar).  These produce power intermittently, taking naps when the winds go calm, or the sunbeams stop — sometimes for extended periods.

Meanwhile, the end-user demand for electricity constantly rises and falls throughout the day.  Today’s power generation infrastructure is carefully designed to react to the frequent ups and downs of demand, by quickly delivering less or more electricity into the grid.  If this was not the case, life would have many more technological headaches.

On the other hand, a wind turbine farm pays no attention whatsoever to end-user demand.  More wind, more power.  No wind, no power.  The same is true for solar panel arrays, and the variable inflow of sunbeams.  For these systems to work, large scale battery infrastructure is needed to effectively store surplus energy when generation exceeds demand, and then later release stored energy whenever demand exceeds generation.  In northern regions, demand zooms higher when winter moves in, so the battery backup buffer would ideally need to store maybe four weeks of electricity — a huge challenge.  Nobody knows if this is even possible under real world conditions.

There are two forms of electricity, AC and DC.  The grid can only carry AC power.  When you plug a gizmo into a wall receptacle, it receives AC.  AC cannot be stored — once it is fed into the grid, it will either be used or lost.  Surplus AC can be converted to DC, which can be stored in a backup buffer battery, for later use.  When demand rises, DC in the battery can be converted to AC, and fed back into the grid.  Your cell phone and flashlight have batteries, because they run on DC.  Solar panels and wind turbines produce DC, which can be stored in batteries. 

And now, the plot thickens.  Lithium-ion batteries provide the most efficient storage.  To power 1.39 billion EVs, an estimated 282.6 million tons of batteries would be needed.  Plus, vastly more battery infrastructure would be needed to provide the storage buffer for the grid — an additional 2.5 billion tons!  So, to enable both EVs and grid buffer storage, an estimated 2.78 billion tons of batteries would be needed.  “This far exceeds global reserves of nickel, cobalt, lithium, and graphite.”  Without adequate storage buffers, “the wind and solar power generation may not be able to be scaled up to the proposed global scope.”

Indeed, the geologists wondered if there are adequate mineral resources to make batteries for just the 1.39 billion EVs.  They wrote, “Preliminary calculations show that global reserves, let alone global production, may not be enough to resource the quantity of batteries required.”  Oh, and those 1.39 billion EV batteries would have a useful working life of just of 8 to 10 years.  And the wind turbines and solar panels also have limited lifespans, 20 to 30 years or so.  Everything will need periodic replacement, from now to eternity.  For this reason, Alice Friedemann suggests that “renewable” should more accurately be referred to as “rebuildable.”  No free lunch.

Mineral resources are neither infinite, easily available, nor cheap.  The massive transition to renewables looks more like a frantic short term plastic bandage, rather than an effective, well planned permanent cure.  The geologists conclude that a transition to renewable energy seems to be seriously hobbled by the limited availability of nonrenewable minerals. 

The recipe for lithium-ion batteries requires five essential minerals: copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, and graphite.  Are there adequate reserves of these minerals to manufacture all those batteries?  No, not even close.  EV transport would need 1.39 billion batteries.  “In theory, there are enough global reserves of copper if they were exclusively used just to produce lithium-ion batteries for just one generation of vehicles.”  Reserves of the other four minerals are not adequate to make all of those EV batteries.  See the chart on page six of the report’s summary. [LINK]

So, we’ve looked at transport and electricity generation, and their theoretical renewable options.  The third focus of the Finnish report was industrial manufacturing.  What are the theoretical options for running industrial systems on renewable energy?  The geologists can’t think of any.  See the chart on page two of the report’s summary.

Simon Michaux authored the Finnish report.  He wrote, “In conclusion, this report suggests that replacing the existing fossil fuel powered system (oil, gas, and coal), using renewable technologies, such as solar panels or wind turbines, will not be possible for the entire global human population.  There is simply just not enough time, nor resources to do this by the current target set by the world’s most influential nations.  What may be required, therefore, is a significant reduction of societal demand for all resources, of all kinds.  This implies a very different social contract and a radically different system of governance to what is in place today.  Inevitably, this leads to the conclusion that the existing renewable energy sectors and the EV technology systems are merely steppingstones to something else, rather than the final solution.  It is recommended that some thought be given to this and what that something else might be.”

 

Michaux, Simon P., “Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels,” Geological Survey of Finland, August 20, 2021.

I did not entirely read the 1,000 page report [LINK].  I did carefully read the fairly understandable eight page summary of the report [LINK].