Saturday, December 29, 2012

60. The Green-Valley Approach to System Earth

Nature never betray’d
The heart that loved her.
(William Wordsworth)

Speak not of peoples and laws and
Kingdoms, for the whole earth is
My birthplace and all humans are
My brothers.
(Khalil Gibran, Tears and Laughter)

As explained in the last few posts, there have been three energy cultures after we humans appeared on the scene: the pyroculture, the agroculture, and the present carboculture. But now a fourth one is in the offing. Why?

Humans in the carbocultural energy regime (cf. Part 59) are turning against themselves by exceeding the carrying capacity of the habitat. This is a good example of how history repeats itself sometimes, because something similar happened in the pyrocultural regime and the agrocultural regime as well. In the pyrocultural regime, when the overshooting of the carrying capacity of the habitat occurred, the Symbolisational Signal provided a new perception of reality, which enabled humans to increase the carrying capacity of the habitat by inventing agriculture. But in due course the agrocultural regime also reached a stage wherein the carrying capacity of the habitat was exceeded. Once again, another signal, namely the Quantificational Signal, provided the way out, in the form of exploitation of fossil fuels, heralding the emergence of the carbocultural energy regime.

We are now in the carbocultural regime, and there is a clear signal about another overshooting of the carrying capacity of the habitat. What we are now seeing is the Macroscopical Signal (Niele 2005).

The term ‘macroscope’ is an apt one. Its meaning is just the opposite of ‘microscope’. A microscope magnifies and shows detail at small length scales (a case of zooming in). A macroscope is a ‘symbolic instrument’ which combines data from various sources and presents the big picture in a way we can comprehend (a case of zooming out). de Rosnay (1979) introduced this tool for investigating highly complex systems. A variety of macroscopical signals are impinging on our consciousness, and are making us acutely aware of problems like the global warming.

Ecological footprint is another important term in this context. It is ‘the area of productive land and water that people need to support their consumption and to dispose of waste’. The macroscopical signal is telling us that our ecological footprint is overshooting the carrying capacity of the habitat, and this can be very dangerous.

Our response to this signal is not at all unanimous. Two broad viewpoints have been identified: The ‘imperial view’ and the ‘Arcadian view’ (Worster1994). The former is an aggressive approach, aiming to control Nature. The latter advocates humility in the face of forces of Nature, and aims at a life of harmony and peaceful coexistence with other creatures, advocating a reduction in the size of our current ecological footprint, so that long-term sustainability can be attained.

The imperial approach was advocated by the highly influential 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon. According to Worster (1994), ‘Bacon promised to the world a manmade paradise, to be rendered astonishingly fertile by science and human management. In that utopia, he predicted, man would recover a place of dignity and order, as well as authority over all the other creatures he once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Where the Arcadian naturalist exemplified a life of quiet reverence before the natural world, Bacon’s hero was a man of "Active Science", busy studying how he might remake nature and improve the human estate. Instead of humility, Bacon was all for self-assertiveness: "the enlargement of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible". . . "The world is made for man", he announced, "not man for the world"'. I shall discuss this approach in the next post.

The Arcadian Man believes that it is futile to try to conquer Nature, and that the most sensible thing to do is to live in harmony with it, and to ensure that all the other creatures with whom we share the Earth get their due share of the bounty. If this requires a reversal of the clock for shrinking our current ecological footprint, then so be it. The Arcadian Man has no use for nuclear energy, nanotechnology, or genetic engineering. Even economic growth must be arrested, even reversed, if it has a deleterious effect on the ecosphere.

The Arcadian Man aims at using solar power, and emulating Mother Nature in cycling matter in (nearly) closed loops, thus taking the carbocultural regime towards the 'Green Valley'. Four hundred years ago, at the start of the Carbian Period (cf. Part 56), the man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, resulting from the use of fossil fuels, were so small that they could be readily processed and absorbed by green plants by photosynthesis. But today these emissions have reached more than 24 Gtons per year, and natural processes can fix only a part of it into solid forms. Therefore, it is no longer tenable to go on following the practice of mostly ‘linear’ once-through conversion of natural resources into human waste. The Macroscopical Signal is loud and clear. We must resort to recycling matter in nearly- closed-loops metabolisms, so that the increasing burden on the ecosphere can be reversed.

Innovative means must also be found for sequestering the carbon dioxide gas released into the atmosphere. Some possibilities are: reforestation; chemical fixation; and injection into geological formations.

But is the Green Valley approach really the best thing to do? In the next few posts I shall discuss some alternative ideas, and then describe the symbiotic approach discussed by Niele (2005). He foresees the emergence of a 'heliocultural energy regime' as the panacea for our current and near-future ecological problems.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

59. The Agrocultural and Carbocultural Energy Regimes

The booming fire economy of the pyrocultural energy regime (cf. Part 58) led to the emergence of agriculture. Humans observed that, when a piece of land was charred by wildfire, it got cleared of the forest, and what is more, new plants sprouted in the resurrected land, under certain conditions. They burnt forests to clear more and more land for sowing seeds of edible crops. Agriculture was a far more efficient mode for acquiring food, compared to hunting and gathering. Thus evolved the agrocultural energy regime (Niele 2005).

The ever present influx of solar energy and its utilization through agriculture led to the emergence of new features like crafts, villages, a growing population, and new energy chains. ‘Cooking’ got elevated and diversified to other technologies like baking of bricks and making of glass, as also the processing of iron ore (see below). Alphabet and money also emerged, among several other such things. The inexorable march towards ever-increasing complexity continues to this day. We now grow crystals of complex materials in the laboratory, for applications in technology. Development of carefully patterned nanocomposites is another such activity.

For the agrocultural energy regime:

Energy source: Crops (requiring seeds, water, carbon dioxide, and solar light).

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathways: Various social and cultural activities of humans.

Chief drivers: Humans.

As argued by Niele, this description of the agrocultural regime must be supplanted with the socio-technological description. With the emergence of agriculture, the nomadic way of life gave way to a more sedentary settled-down lifestyle, leading to farms and villages.

Another life-style-changing invention was pottery. It must have been observed that materials used for making the hearth got hardened by the heat treatment. This discovery led to the invention of pottery-making. Several innovations like pots, dishes, and ovens followed. Application of the oven improved the cooking process. Use of ceramic pots for storage of various kinds of edible items increased their shelf life.

The observation of the effect of heat on material properties was the forerunner of the evolution of the empirical sciences. Invention of other metallurgical techniques followed. Innovations resulting from these inventions include cooking utensils, ornaments, and weapons. The increased economic diversity in goods and trade engendered barter trade.

Niele has listed the four anthroposystems of the agrocultural regime as:

practical know-how;
agricultural technology;
farming and bartering; and
farms and villages.

During this regime, humans developed the quality ‘to measure reality’. According to Niele, ‘a strong signal surged around circa 1250 to 1350 near the end of the Agrocultural Regime: this is termed the Quantificational Signal’. This signal touched all the anthroposystems, prompting ‘modern science, technology, business practice, and bureaucracy’ (Crosby 1997).

Another energy revolution, namely the carbo-energy revolution, occurred ~400 years ago when humans discovered a fuel other than wood, namely fossil fuel (coal, petroleum, natural gas). This marked the onset of the carbocultural energy regime. The fossil fuel had been created in the aerobic regime by the deposition of large volumes of dead biomass deep inside the Earth’s crust. This fossilization amounted to the conversion of carbohydrates of biological origin to mineral hydrocarbons.

Discovery of this new form of fuel resulted not just in its use in place of wood for burning, but led eventually to the development of the combustion engine. This development had truly far-reaching consequences. The engine converted heat to mechanical movement, resulting in locomotion, electricity production, etc.

The availability of energy in a convenient form (electricity) led to a whole new set of societal energy-dissipating structures and emergent phenomena, apart from a phenomenal growth in population and economies. Niele lists some of these developments as: Quantum mechanics, antibiotics, pop music, the world-wide web, man on the moon, cities, the United Nations, unions, buildings, vehicles, medicines, computer networks, mobile phones, etc.

The explosive growth in the exploitation of fossil fuels has resulted in a steady build up of the amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, which is now a cause for serious concern.

For the carbo-cultural energy regime:

Energy source: Fossil fuel plus oxygen.

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathway: Burning of fossil fuel in combustion

Chief drivers: Human activities.

The agro-cultural regime and the carbo-cultural regime also saw the emergence of wind power, solar power, hydroelectric power, and nuclear power. But none of these has yet risen to the level of ecological dominance for naming an energy period based on any of them.

On the socio-technological side, the carbocultural regime saw the grand alliance of science and crafts, giving rise to technology as we know it today. It is based largely on fossil fuels. Humankind progressed from ‘farms and villages’ to ‘cities and nations’.

Niele has identified the four anthroposystems of the carbocultural regime as:

reductionistic science;
conversion technology;
manufacturing and trading; and
cities and nations.

In the next post I shall discuss the 'Green Valley' approach being advocated by many for addressing the menacing 'ecological footprint' problem of the carbocultural regime.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

58. The Pyrocultural Energy Regime

In Part 56 I told you about the various energy revolutions and energy regimes that followed the emergence of life on Earth. Here is a recap:

                           Thermophilic regime
~3.8 billion years ago     |     Photo-energy revolution
               Phototrophic regime
~2.1 billion years ago     |     Oxo-energy revolution
               Aerobic regime
~0.5 million years ago    |     Pyro-energy revolution
               Pyrocultural regime
~12000 years ago        |     Agro-energy revolution
                           Agrocultural regime
~400 years ago                     |     Carbo-energy revolution
               Carbocultural regime

Humans are 'thinking reeds'. Their emergence on the scene (cf. Part 57) had a societal and cultural aspect, which impacted very strongly what would otherwise have been purely raw, blind-forces-of-Nature evolution.

Humans have been instrumental in the creation of an ‘anthroposphere’, comprising of the following four 'anthroposystems' (Niele 2005):

Human knowing (leading to discovery, or new observation).

Human capacity (leading to invention, or new creation).

Human action (leading to innovation, or new practice).

Human living (leading to diffusion, or new way of living).

The anthroposphere emerged ~2.5 million years ago, near the end of the aerobic energy regime. Early humans observed the hardness of stones and the sharpness of some shapes of stones. This was ‘discovery’ or earth wisdom (the first of the four anthroposystems listed above).

The next stage was ‘invention’, namely the creation of tools (axes, cleavers, picks) by striking stone against stone (stone technology).

Innovation followed invention. The invented tools or artefacts were used for procuring and processing food (foraging and scavenging).

All this changed the way of living; an example was the emergence of the practice of cave dwelling.

Man the toolmaker and cave dweller could survive and thrive through his earth wisdom or comprehension of his surroundings. The dominance of the human species triggered the pyro-energy revolution, resulting in the pyrocultural energy regime.

The aerobic regime had changed the face of the Earth. The new-look planet got ~20% oxygen in the atmosphere, and supported plants and animals. Niele (2005) has pointed out another important fallout of the aerobic regime, namely the appearance of wild fire on the scene. A new energy gradient had emerged, with wood plus oxygen serving as the energy source. The energy sink for this gradient was carbon dioxide plus water.

In due course, humans acquired mastery over fire. This was a development with far-reaching consequences. Anthropogenic fire can be said to have marked the beginning of the human civilization. It engendered the beginning of the pyrocultural energy regime. The new energy-dissipating structure (based on wood-burning) was societal in nature. Fire mastery meant several things: Heating; lighting; roasting of food; scaring away animals, and most significantly, the emergent social intercourse around the fireplace.

The societal aspect of the pyrocultural energy regime had ever-spiralling fallouts. The ever-increasing energy dissipation (through burning of wood) took the System Earth farther away from equilibrium, leading to the emergence of new kinds of complexity. Since the fire economy was a societal dissipative structure, the emergent phenomena were cultural by nature (Niele 2005). As people tended to assemble around the fireplace, emergent phenomena like coordination, communication, spoken languages, symbolic thinking, etc. were the result.

Evolution of complexity in an energy-dissipating system involves a driving force and a shaping force. The driving force here, of course, was solar energy trapped in wood. The shaping force was human ingenuity.

Thus, for the pyrocultural energy regime:

Energy source: Wood plus oxygen for creating controlled fire.

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathway: Societal structure around the fireplace.

Chief drivers: Humans.

The key phrases for the four anthroposystems characterizing the pyrocultural regime are:

Symbolic thinking (discovery);
fire technology (invention);
hunting and cooking (innovation); and
nomadic bands (new way of living).

Humans had observed wild fires and the burning of wood, and also experienced the heat of the fire. They soon learnt how to create and sustain this fire in a controlled manner. The fireplace became a daily practice, making cave dwelling more attractive. This had a major influence on the life style of people. They could not only hunt with their tools, they could also cook the food.

There is a new (2011) book Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, by Nathan Myhrvold et al. Among other things it explains in an appetising manner how cooking made humans smarter. Cooked food is akin to pre-digested food in certain ways. Therefore it takes the load off the intestines, thus making extra energy available for the brain. This was one of the factors leading to an increased brain size of humans, compared to the apes.

Since humans cook their food, they spend just 5% of the day eating. Uncooked food is hard and stringy, requiring hours of chewing and still not giving the same level of nourishment. The extra time available to early humans enabled them, among other things, to look for new kinds of food, gather fruits, or lie in wait of animals for hunting.

The fireside not only resulted in the emergence of nomadic culture, it also provided the right milieu for the development of symbolic thinking. The fireside became the hub of social evolution, and its most important fallout was the uniquely human trait of symbolic thinking. This led to the development of language, as also an increasingly sophisticated way of looking at Nature. The coevolution of brainpower and technology, or 'memes' and artefacts, accelerated. [As I shall discuss in a future post, memes are the social equivalent of genes.] Humans even created ‘nonuseful’ artefacts like jewellery and musical instruments.

Emergence of symbolic ‘doings’ like these has been viewed by Niele (2005) as a Symbolisational Signal, which triggered the agro-energy revolution, and the consequent agrocultural energy regime. More on that next time.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

57. The Phototrophic and the Aerobic Energy Regimes in Our Evolutionary History

After the thermophilic energy regime (described in Part 56), the next to emerge was the phototrophic energy regime. It was dominated by solar energy as the source for the energy gradient.

This energy regime came about because some of the hyperthermophiles reached the surface of the sea, where they encountered sunlight. Chemical and biological adaptation and evolution followed, enabling them to develop a new metabolism which did not depend on the energy provided by the hydrothermal vents, but instead used solar energy through photosynthesis. These solar-energy-dissipating organisms established the phototrophic regime.

Two major survival tools emerged: Fixing of carbon dioxide; and the stripping of hydrogen from water (which liberated oxygen). The newly evolved microorganisms doing this were cyanobacteria or blue-greens (Marais 2000). They produced carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water, and gradually built up the molecular-oxygen (O2) content of the Earth's atmosphere as a by-product. The dependence on DNA, proteins, and ATP continued as before.

The colour of the blue-greens comes from the chlorophylls in them. These pigments act as ‘molecular solar panels’, harvesting solar energy and converting it into chemical energy.

As taught in elementary chemistry classes, loss of electrons is oxidation, and gain of electrons is reduction (LEOGER). The blue-greens strip electrons from water molecules, thus releasing hydrogen for use, along with carbon dioxide, in the production of carbohydrates. Photosynthesis amounts to sunlight-driven conversion of carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and oxygen. Since airborne carbon dioxide is the only source of carbon that the blue-greens use, we can say that they create organic matter from inorganic matter.

Phototrophy literally means use of light as an energy source. In the phototrophic regime, solar light was the dominant energy source for the energy-dissipating pathway for the sustenance and further evolution of life. The blue-green bacteria were the chief drivers of the biochemical cycle during this regime. The oxygen-producing (‘oxygenic’) photosynthesis mechanism evolved by them enabled an increase in the organic productivity by two to three orders of magnitude, compared to what was done by the hyperthermophiles in the thermophilic regime.

The Earth's atmosphere in the early thermoic era was mostly carbon dioxide, and practically no molecular oxygen. Geochemical processes buried much of the carbon dioxide as silicate-carbonates, and biochemical processes converted this gas to bioorganic matter. Similarly, the molecular oxygen liberated by the photosynthesis processes was not available initially as atmospheric gas. Instead, much of it (~97%) was captured by rocks, volcanic gases, and upwelling oceanic iron particles. This was a slow but irreversible process. Only after it was completed (~2.2 billion years ago) did the oxygen gas start permeating the atmosphere surrounding the earth (Catling, Zahnle and McKay 2001).

Within a few hundred thousand years the atmospheric oxygen levels rose from less than 1% to ~15% of present-day levels. The air became more breathable.

Thus, for the phototrophic energy regime:

Energy source: Solar light.

Energy sink: Chemical energy.

Energy-dissipating pathways: Photochemical reactions; photosynthetic life forms; other solar-energy-dissipating superstructures in the ecosphere.

Chief drivers: The cyanobacteria (blue-greens).

The release of molecular oxygen as a waste product of the photosynthetic process by the blue-greens fell into a positive-feedback loop: Abundant availability of solar light made the population of the blue-greens to grow, producing more and more oxygen. But oxygen itself was poison to these organisms. That was a crisis situation indeed.

Therefore, EVOLUTIONARY ADAPTATION LED TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF A NEW KIND OF CELL, NAMELY THE EUKARYOTIC CELL. Such a cell had organelles, which have the feature that they are enclosed in membranes. The evolution of the eukaryotic cell resolved the crisis (see below).

In due course, more complex multi-cellular life forms emerged, and dominated this energy regime, the aerobic regime, in which respiration provided the main fuel-burning mechanism. Before the emergence of the eukaryotic cell, all life on Earth had existed as bacteria and archaea only (for over a billion years).

The atmospheric oxygen was conducive to the aerobes, but poison for the anaerobic blue-greens. But the blue-greens did not simply fade away in such a situation, as they were instrumental not only in the production of molecular oxygen but also food for the respiring aerobes. Therefore the build-up of oxygen in the atmosphere was a threat to both types of organisms: a direct threat to the anaerobes, and an indirect threat to the aerobes. THE EVOLUTION OF A SYMBIOTIC ‘PACT’ BETWEEN OXYGENIC PHOTOSYNTHESIS AND AEROBIC RESPIRATION WAS AT THE HEART OF THE OXO-ENERGY REVOLUTION, RESULTING IN THE EMERGENCE OF THE AEROBIC ENERGY REGIME. How?

This strategic alliance between ‘light eaters’ and ‘oxygen breathers’ not only saved the light-harvesting technology of the blue-greens, it also increased by an order of magnitude the photosynthetic metabolism. The eukaryotic cell design embodied sunlight-harvesting photosynthesis, and protection against oxygen toxicity. Its highly efficient metabolic combustion via aerobic respiration triggered the appearance of multicellular life forms, which, in turn, led to the emergence of still more complex life forms and ecosystems. Humans appeared on the scene in due course, and this was a development with unprecedented consequences.

The eukaryotic organisms have continued to coexist with the prokaryotic organisms (namely the bacteria and the archaea) in several schemes. In fact, the prokaryotes ‘maintain the foundation of all functioning ecosystems on this planet’ (Knoll 2003). An example is the nitrogen that bacteria make available for biological processes.

For the aerobic regime:

Energy source: Photosynthetic carbohydrates together with free oxygen.

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathway: Aerobic respiration.

Chief driver: The eukaryotic cell.

Aerobic respiration produced 18 times more ATP (the cell fuel) from carbohydrates than the anaerobic processes prevalent till then. The aerobic regime saw a tremendous growth in biomass, which ended up ultimately as fossilised minerals.