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].

Monday, June 20, 2022

Clean Green Incoherence

 

In 2015, I posted my review of Too Hot to Touch, a 2013 book by William and Rosemarie Alley.  William worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and he was involved in the search for somewhere to store more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, and 20,000 canisters of military waste.  The challenging objective was to store this extremely dangerous high level radioactive waste in a way that would be absolutely safe for a million years.  The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was an isolated desert location.  It was not perfect, but no place was perfect.  It was the best choice possible, based on 25 years of research costing $10 billion.  The repository was designed to be 1,000 feet (304 m) below the surface.

The Alleys wrote that fuel rods are used for about six years.  Spent fuel rods remain very hot and highly radioactive.  For about five years, they must be kept submerged in ponds, where cooled water constantly circulates.  Eventually, the hot rods cool off, and can be stored in airtight dry casks, which are much safer.  Dry casks are made of steel and concrete.  The concrete blocks radioactive emissions.  Casks are designed to last maybe 50 years, not a million. 

Permanent storage requires underground geologic repositories that will remain very dry forever, and not be disturbed by earthquakes or terrorists.  In 2022, more than 89,000 tons of spent fuel rods are stored in casks in many states.  If we ever build a repository, all those casks of extremely toxic waste will have to be hauled in from distant locations, with no surprises, if possible.

The Alleys wrote that in 2011, about 75 percent of spent fuel in the U.S. was stored in ponds.  “Many of these pools are full, with some containing four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed for.”  If a booboo happens, and hot rods are exposed to air, the embedded uranium pellets can oxidize.  If the rods ignite, massive amounts of highly radioactive emissions can be released.  This could result in many cancer deaths, and cost billions of dollars.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods. 

When the Alleys wrote in 2013, there were 440 nuke plants in 31 countries.  At that time, no nation had a permanent high-level waste storage facility in operation.  In 2022, there are 449 plants.  Guess how many nations are using geologic repositories (zero).  One in Finland might open in 2023.

A Wikipedia article on Nuclear Decommissioning described the aging reactors in the U.S.  “As of 2017, most nuclear plants operating in the United States were designed for a life of about 30 to 40 years and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  As of 2020, the average age of these reactors was about 39 years.  Many plants are coming to the end of their licensing period and if their licenses are not renewed, they must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process.”  Decommissioning is very expensive, and can take many years.

Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.  At that time, Yucca Mountain was the widely supported location for our nuke waste repository.  One crappy day, the Alleys were blindsided by an unpleasant surprise.  In March 2009, Obama’s new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, told a Senate hearing that “Yucca Mountain was not an option.”  In July 2009, the license application was withdrawn, and all funding for the project was cut.  Game over.

Chu cited no issues, and offered no alternatives.  The Alleys wrote, “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).  Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.”  He needed Reid in order to push his health care plans through.  Republican Senators blasted Chu with sharp questions about his hasty dumb decision. 

In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president.  Wikipedia described his Yucca Mountain policies.  “On March 15, 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would request Congressional approval for $120 million to restart licensing activity at the Yucca Mountain Repository, with funding also to be used to create an interim storage program.  The project would consolidate nuclear waste across the United States in Yucca Mountain, which had been stockpiled in local locations since 2010.”

Then, he changed his mind.  “Although his administration had allocated money to the project, in October 2018, President Donald Trump stated he opposed the use of Yucca Mountain for dumping, saying he agreed with the people of Nevada.”  “On May 20, 2020, Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Trump strongly opposes proceeding with Yucca Mountain Repository.”

In November 2020, voters chose Joe Biden to be the next president.  Biden did not overturn Trump’s policy.  The Wikipedia article continues.  “In May 2021, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that Yucca Mountain would not be part of the Biden administration’s plans for nuclear-waste disposal.  She anticipated announcing the department's next steps in the coming months.”

A year later, in May 2022, an Associated Press story reported that Granholm had not changed her mind.  “The Energy Department is working to develop a process to ask communities if they are interested in storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis, both to make nuclear power a more sustainable option and figure out what to do with the waste.  Granholm said it’s the best way to finally solve the issue.  A plan to build a national storage facility northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain has been mothballed because of staunch opposition from most Nevada residents and officials.”  So, Obama, Trump, and Biden rubbished the Yucca solution, and offered no Plan B.  Sorry kids!

Luckily, hope was on the way!  In February 2019, tree-hugging progressives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, were galloping in to rescue us.  The answer to our prayers was called the Green New Deal (GND).  An early version of the plan rejected the notion that carbon-free nuclear energy was necessary to fight climate change and keep the perpetually growing economy on life support.  It was simply too expensive, too risky, and there was nowhere to store the waste for all eternity.  The best solution was “clean, green, renewable energy” — mostly solar and wind.

Not everyone agreed.  Shutting down the nuclear industry would mean burning even more fossil energy to keep energy guzzling consumers in the express lane to oblivion.  The downside of solar and wind is intermittency — when the winds calm, or sunbeams disappear, they quit working.  Nukes can consistently produce lots of electricity, whilst emitting no carbon during operation. 

These were the two possible options: renewables only, or renewables plus nukes.  Not worthy of serious consideration was a third option: mindfully confronting our embarrassing addictions — sharply reigning in consumption, turning off the lights, unplugging the gizmos, learning how to walk, and seriously contemplating the dark vibes of our maximum impact lifestyles.

Anyway, the initial anti-nuke version of the GND generated resistance from the Sunrise Movement and other folks.  They wanted to continue using carbon-free nuclear energy, rather than burning even more fossil fuel, and belching even more carbon into the atmosphere.  On May 6, 2019, Ocasio-Cortez felt the heat, saw the light, and developed an “open mind” on nukes.  She was willing to leave the door open on nuclear.  She imagined that newer reactors were far better than the old technology.  Ideally, the long term goal should be to meet 100% of U.S. electricity needs via “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy.”

OK, so that’s what I’ve learned recently.  It’s been a while since I posted new stuff here.  Revising this book is hard on my tired brain.  The above fits into a bigger picture that’s still under construction.  The bigger picture has more components.  We live in an era of conspiracy theories and fake news.  The powers that be are working very hard to assure us that the climate crisis is an annoyance that can and will be solved.  With the transition to clean, green, renewable energy, the consumer way of life can happily metastasize forever.  We’re on the path to a brighter future.  Don’t worry, go shopping. 

I previously posted four sample sections on climate change: [55] [56] [57] [58].  Those sections describe why I perceive that the climate is in a positive feedback loop.  Atmospheric carbon continues accumulating, polar ice continues shrinking, Arctic temperatures continue rising, permafrost continues melting, and many other processes are intensifying in a downward spiral that is out of control.  Even if all eight billion of us suddenly went Stone Age tomorrow, the avalanche of change we’ve unleashed would continue its descent.

An enormous shortcoming in the clean, green, renewable future dream is that it’s essentially electric powered.  Fossil energy is not invited.  Building millions of wind turbines, solar panels, storage batteries, and radically redesigning the global grid would be impossible without the use of technology that requires huge amounts of fossil energy.  All of these gizmos have limited working lifespans.  Periodic replacement is needed.

Electricity cannot generate the intense heat needed to make metals, silicon, concrete, and other compounds.  Mining, smelting, transportation systems, and many other processes cannot be entirely performed using electricity.  You can’t manufacture stuff like machinery for construction, agriculture, high technology, and so on.  Thus, the GND is the opposite of carbon-free.

Lately — and very late in the game — some folks are beginning to push back on the Green New Deal’s magical thinking.  Megan Seibert and William E. Rees discussed its serious shortcomings.  Their report relied heavily on the pioneering research by Alice Friedemann.  Geologist Walter Youngquist was my friend.  The second edition of his outstanding GeoDestinies book is now available as a free 600-page PDF.

Someday my revisions will be complete, and this stuff will all be presented in a neat and tidy manner.  Thank you for your patience!  Have a nice day!

Saturday, April 23, 2022

GeoDestinies 2022


 

Walter Youngquist (1921-2018) was a petroleum geologist, a University of Oregon professor, and my friend.  His life’s masterpiece is a 600 page book that’s now available to everyone as a free PDF download [HERE].  

Geologists study Earth resources, many of which are being degraded and depleted — aquifers, topsoil, hydrocarbons, minerals, etc.  These resources have limits.  Every drinker learns that the glass starts full, ends empty, and the faster you drink it, the quicker it’s gone.  Consumers pay little attention to resource limits, but they’re beginning to comprehend the impact of carbon emissions on the climate.  Mainstream experts repeatedly tell us not to worry.  They preach a fervent blind faith in miracles — a smooth and easy transition to a clean, green, renewable utopia.  Geologists wince. 

Youngquist didn’t believe in miracles or techno utopias.  Today, we’re living dangerously fast by destroying astonishing amounts of nonrenewable resources — a onetime binge that can never again be repeated.  Nonrenewable energy is finite.  We have been soaring in a beautiful dream world, where the air is perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of a nonrenewable prosperity.  The era of cheap energy is fading away in the rear view mirror. 

In 1973, the Eugene newspaper wrote a story about one of his lectures, “Dark Picture Painted by Youngquist.”  He gave many talks to Chamber of Commerce groups, trying to introduce them to the concept of limits.  He was almost never invited back.  America worships perpetual growth at any cost.  Growth is our god word.

In the mid-1990s, a number of the world’s petroleum geologists became alarmed that the volume of new oil discovered was declining, while the volume of consumption continued soaring.  This inspired the dawn of the Peak Oil movement, a wakeup call.  In 1997, Youngquist published GeoDestinies, which quickly sold out.  Folks begged him to print more, but Walt was reluctant.  He wanted to update the info first, but the story was moving faster than he could type. 

Finally, in 2012, he finished the update.  Unfortunately, the process hit some curves.  The book did not get to a printer, Walt died, the publisher went extinct, and the manuscript gathered dust.  In 2022, a small group of fans was able to get a digital copy, and make it available to the world.  Most of the content is still timely and very important.  For most readers, this book is largely going to be a banquet of new information, important stuff that’s rarely taught in school, if ever.

Today, many snicker at the Peak Oil dimwits.  Dudes, we didn’t run out!  We’ll always find more!  In the ’90s, the industry was primarily producing cheap and easy conventional oil (insert a straw and suck).  It appears that the global production of this oil peaked around 2005.  Unfortunately, mad scientists developed new technology for extracting oil, like hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling.  This enabled a sharp increase in the production of unconventional oil from sources including tar sands, heavy oil, shale oil (tight oil), and deep water wells.  This oil was far more challenging and expensive to extract (and the mother of many bankruptcies).

In addition to declining discoveries, a new boogeyman is EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).  It takes energy to extract fossil energy.  For example, a hundred years ago, the EROEI for conventional oil was very high.  Ram a drill into a huge pool of Texas oil, and a geyser of black gold often shot high in the sky.  Today, with the shift toward unconventional oil, the EROEI is far lower and declining.  As the energy needed for extraction approaches the energy content of the output, the industry moves closer to its expiration date.  A lot of fossil energy will be left in the ground forever. 

It took more than 500 million years for geologic forces to transform plant and animal residue into fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas.  It will take less than 500 years for humans to extract it and burn it.  We live during a brief blip in Earth history, an ecological hurricane.  Walt’s core message was a blunt warning.  “The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable.  Large problems lie not very far ahead.  …In some respects, the twenty-first century will be like the twentieth century in reverse.”

The public believes that adequate “renewable” substitutes will be available when needed.  Alternative energy is not clean, green, and free.  The hardware components have limited working lifespans.  Scaling up to replace nonrenewable energy would require vast land area, roads, power lines, and backup for when adequate wind or sunbeams are unavailable.  Manufacturing solar panels requires critical minerals like cobalt, gallium, germanium, indium, manganese, tellu­rium, titanium, and zinc.  Each wind turbine requires tons of concrete, steel, and other resources.

Walt described the alternative energy options, and their many limitations.  He concluded that renewable energy will not come close to replacing fossil energy.  In 2021, Alice Friedemann presented a far more thorough discussion in her book Life After Fossil Fuels.  A renewable utopia seems impossible. 

Oil is just one of many Earth resource topics in Walt’s book.  Plants and animals don’t need it.  Less than 200 years ago, oil was of no great importance to anyone anywhere.  For many thousands of years, nomads wandered across the Arabian Peninsula, under which laid oceans of ancient oil.  It never occurred to them to extract it, burn it, blindside the climate, and race down crowded highways in powerful motorized wheelchairs.  Naturally, in those days, the planet was in far healthier condition.  Then, in the twentieth century, Arabia became very rich, very fast.

Other resources are genuinely essential for the survival of the family of life — soil, water, air, and sunlight.  Of all minerals, soil is the most precious by far.  Fertile soil is created so slowly that, from a human perspective, it’s essentially nonrenewable.  In his book Dirt, geologist David Montgomery wrote, “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.”  Peter Salonius studied soil for 44 years.  He concluded that all extractive agriculture, from ancient times to the present, was unsustainable. 

The problems associated with soil destruction are widely understood, and widely disregarded.  Nobody became a billionaire by promoting soil conservation.  Globally, billions of tons are lost every year.  Overall, one-third of the soil on U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years.  Half of the excellent topsoil of Iowa is already gone.  The highest quality soil is close to the surface, and the first to erode.  Walt wrote, “Worldwide, the con­tinuing loss of soil and depletion of groundwater is leading humanity directly over the cliff.”   

All life needs water.  Water allows mineral nutrients in the soil to be absorbed by plants.  Your body is about 60 percent water.  In some regions, farms receive adequate water from precipitation.  Other regions require irrigation.  About 17 percent of cropland is irrigated, but it produces 40 percent of the world’s crops. 

Some underground aquifers are unable to recharge as fast as pumps are extracting the water — like the vast Ogallala aquifer in the U.S. midlands.  They are unsustainable water mines.  Several communities in Colorado are (temporarily) drinking from reservoirs of 10,000 year old water.  Forty percent of humankind now lives in regions with chronic water shortages, especially Africans, with their rapidly growing populations. 

When ancient aquifers are depleted, subsidence can occur — the ground sinks, filling the empty space where the water once was.  This makes it impossible for the aquifer to ever refill again.  In some portions of Mexico City, subsidence has lowered the ground surface up to 28 feet (8.5 m), causing much damage.  Irrigation can also lead to the accumulation of salt in the soil, which eventually creates a permanent wasteland.  In the cradle of civilization, the once thriving Tigris Euphrates floodplain is now “a glistening desert of salt.”

Earth resources have played a starring role in world history.  They enable the rise of civilizations, and their limited eras of prosperity.  It’s no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, because they had abundant deposits of coal, iron, and limestone in convenient locations.  The U.S. skyrocketed into a global superpower by exploiting huge deposits of a wide variety of Earth resources.  In World War II, Japan was short on iron, coal, and oil.  Hitler invaded southern Russia in an effort to seize the huge Baku oilfields.

In coming years, as fossil fuel fades out, agriculture will once again be muscle powered and low tech (if the climate crisis allows crop production to continue).  Industrial scale food processing and distribution will fizzle.  Potent synthetic fertilizers and other agrichemicals will no longer be available.  As harvests decline, population growth will shift into reverse. 

Finally, a few footnotes.  GeoDestinies was written on a tiny digital typewriter that allowed files to be saved on a floppy disk.  As Walt typed, the display presented a single line of text.  He never owned a computer, and never had direct access to the internet or email.  He had no spare time.  Finishing this manuscript was job one.

I gave him prints of interesting online stuff, and copies of my book reviews, including Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, and The Little Ice Age.  The Fagan reviews reinforced his belief that climate always changed.  Back in 2012, the notion that human-caused emissions were disrupting the climate was still controversial in the mainstream mindset.

In his 96 years, Walt witnessed remarkable changes in the American standard of living.  These were only possible because of our maniacal binge of energy guzzling.  Modernity’s high standard of living, and fabulous healthcare was awesome.  But the long term environmental impact of these short term benefits was huge.

He lacked some sympathy for environmentalists who opposed energy development projects in America, whilst they were enjoying a comfortable consumer lifestyle.  High impact projects were often diverted to poor nations that had few regulations, if any.  In 2012, Walt was not fully aware of the serious long term hazards of nuclear energy, and the lack of permanent storage for high level radioactive wastes.

Walt was especially horrified by exponential population growth.  In his lifetime, the human mob skyrocketed from 1.9 billion to 7.6 billion.  He was deeply disappointed that overpopulation was a taboo subject for secular and spiritual leaders.  Large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. came from cultures where large families are the norm.  Their dream was to live a maximum impact consumer lifestyle.

Youngquist’s book pulls away cultural blindfolds, and provides a mind-expanding full immersion baptism in the actual facts of life.  “The confluence of factors soon at hand may make this century the most turbulent in human history.  There will be adjustment of population size.  There will be a new energy paradigm.  There will be lifestyle change.  There will be great economic change.  There will be environmental change.  Although change has always been the order of life, the particular confluence of major factors in each of these areas will make the twenty-first century a fundamental turning point for mankind.”

Walt completed the manuscript of the second edition in 2012.  Since then, he wrote four papers for the Negative Population Growth Forum.  Our Plundered Planet (2014), A Geomoment of Affluence (2015), The Scale of Things (2016), Framework of the Future (2016).