Rube Goldberg Nature

The more I learn about it, the more Nature looks like a Rube Goldberg machine: energy and materials flow through convoluted paths to accomplish something seemingly simple. Take the process by which a leaf decomposes. The sheer number of biogeochemical processes involved in the use of that leaf during decomposition is amazing: consumption by fungi and bacteria, use as shelter / habitat by soil nematodes and other microscopic organisms, consumption at a macro scale by larger soil organisms like earthworms, beetles, and crustaceans, use by natural geochemical processes in soil formation or water storage, and far more that I don’t know about (and that I’m sure even researchers in the field are still discovering).

A wild ecosystem involves countless intricate relationships, some essential to the functioning of the broader ecosystem (e.g. those between keystone species and others). Many of the relationships in such ecosystems produce yields of energy (and thus life) for creatures that have no immediate use to humans, and may even be pests on some level.

In many of our human systems, however, in the name of efficiency we engineer out the middle steps. Obvious examples of this abound in the industrial food system. An industrial CAFO is a bastion of efficiency, of a narrow sort. Food arrives (from the outside, typically) in a highly energy-dense and processed form, ready for conversion by the machine-animals from carbohydrates into meat and other products. Any waste products that can be used by humans are siphoned off during this process for sale; any that can’t be used are sent to waste lagoons and the like. The process is linear and of low complexity — food comes in one end, meat and waste on the other.

Consider how it’s often found that eating a fruit delivers vitamins more efficiently than taking a multivitamin. What in the mimicry of the natural vitamins is the multivitamin tablet missing? Instead of opting for the complexity of the fruit, we get orange tablets that can be churned out much faster and cheaper than growing oranges.

The problems inherent in such a way of thinking about and working with Nature is well known. What’s a better way of approaching it? It’s often been argued that the solution is to mimic nature. (This is indeed the approach taken by several agroecology systems, like permaculture.)

But there’s something missing here — and maybe the problem is inherent to some (but hopefully not all) attempts at biomimicry. Suppose I were to build a computer system that tries to learn from Nature. We spend some time analyzing how the natural system works, but to simplify matters we use the usual techniques of scientific reductionism and make the natural system much simpler than usual. Then we take a subset of the natural system and simulate or mimic it. Have we captured the right parts?

More than just capturing the relationships between the parts correctly, such a reductionist approach is at risk of opting for efficiency over resilience or even sacrificing both efficiency and resilience. That is, such an approach could confuse a Rube Goldberg machine that mimics Nature for the real thing. One of the hallmarks of a Rube Goldberg machine is not only its complexity but also its fragility — its lack of resilience. If even one step along the way fails, the whole system fails to achieve its objective, and is not self-repairing.

Thus there might be an important distinction between inherent complexity and apparent complexity. That is, if biomimicry is an important approach to solving problems to meet human needs in a more sane way, we need to be able to differentiate between the Rube Goldberg machine and a bona fide web of life. While Nature might look like a Rube Goldberg machine, it has inherent complexity.

I think this distinction between inherent and apparent complexity arises is many contexts. Consider the subfield of mathematical topology known as knot theory, which is about the study of, well, knots. A circular piece of string might be of low apparent and inherent complexity — the “unknot”, which is just an open loop. Take that string, jumble it in your pocket, and take it out and lay it flat on a piece of paper. You can write labels for crossings that you see using dowker codes, and may arrive at the conclusion that the knot is complex — that it has many crossings (that, presumably, could be hard to untangle). However if you haven’t actually changed the loop of string in any way, and if you were to hold it in just the right position, it’d be clear that all you have is the unknot — that the inherent complexity is low despite high apparent complexity. In this context inherent complexity is captured in the concept of crossing numbers.

When we build a complex system using biomimicry — say the construction of a watercourse, selection of plants in a fruit-tree guild, design of a composting system intended to prevent phosphate loss, or any number of others — is the inherent complexity high or just the apparent complexity? How can we tell? Perhaps one easy way to tell is to break the system. If I identify, say, 10 places I could break the system, and break it in those spots, what happens? Does the system route around the failure, or does it fail catastrophically due to my actions? If a leaf is decomposing and there are no appropriate fungi present, bacteria will get the job done, and vice versa; if neither are present, something else will take over. Only in degraded ecosystems — ones that have low inherent complexity — will decomposition not take place at all.

Perhaps then we should evaluate our systems not only by whether they mimic Nature well in the ways that they function but also how well they mimic Nature in the ways that they don’t.

Tree Debt Revisited

Another perhaps more straightforward way to look at tree debt is to consider the following: what population of trees do I need to personally plant and sustain to equal my carbon emissions? Thinking of it this way tries to equalize two rates: the rate of emissions on one hand and the rate of absorption by trees on the other. So tree debt could be thought of as an obligation to personally plant and maintain a grove of trees (not necessarily all in one location) of a certain size.

To determine my own grove size, I used a reputable carbon calculator to determine our household emissions. The result was 20.5 metric tonnes of CO2 per year. Then I divided that in half for my share, and then again by 3.67 to convert into C from CO2. That’s 2792 kg of C per year. Using the value of 10 kg C / year / tree, this results in a grove size of 280 trees. If I plan to build up this grove over 10 years, this means I should be planting 28 trees a year. I’ll also need to ensure that all the trees I plant stay alive and healthy and plant additional trees if some don’t.

Of course this isn’t to say that I can’t or shouldn’t decrease emissions — and indeed I should. But I’ll take 28 trees per year as my personal target going forward.

Trees, 2013

About a year ago I wrote about Tree Debt, the idea that we might measure our carbon emissions in terms of the number of trees that we’d need to plant to consume an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere. After a few calculations, I arrived at a rough rule of thumb that those who are responsible for an average American’s amount of carbon emissions should plant one tree per week and those that are closer to the worldwide average should plant one tree per month. I don’t know where exactly I fall, but I’m somewhere in between.

In any case, here’s my scorecard for this year. Here’s a list, in roughly the order that I planted them:

  1. Kona Sharwil Avocado
  2. Nectarine
  3. Wonderful Pomegranate
  4. Moro Blood Orange
  5. Gala Apple
  6. Meyer Lemon
  7. Reed Avocado
  8. Pinkerton Avocado
  9. Meyer Lemon
  10. Valencia Orange
  11. Fuji Apple
  12. Queen Avocado
  13. Coast Redwood
  14. Eureka Lemon
  15. Lamb Hass Avocado
  16. Grapefruit
  17. Strawberry Guava

I clearly fell short of one tree per week. (There were also several Figs and Lemons in containers, but those won’t be able to grow to full size so I’m not including them.) The main challenge I ran into was finding places with good enough soil. To deal with this, I started a few soil remediation projects — two sheet mulches (using tree trimmings from local tree companies) in two different formerly-grass covered yards, and a stretch of sidewalk-strip soil restoration using Daikon Radishes, Fava Beans, Comfrey, and coffee grounds from a local coffee shop to break up rock-hard clay soil. In the spring, the plan is to plant several more trees in these spots.

Changing Terminology

This is a short post, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Lately I’ve succumbed to the trend of labeling certain gardening and landscape-design practices as being permaculture or permaculture-like, and I realized that a) the term isn’t particularly descriptive and b) there is a certain quality to the permaculture community that has confused me that I’d like to describe a bit further.

As for issue a): the term permaculture is now used to mean everything and nothing, including ordinary organic gardening, earthworks, perennial agriculture, local currency systems, and much, much more. It’s starting to be hard for me to keep track. Part of this stems from the generality (and vagueness) of the core permaculture principles, and part of it is a bandwagon effect, in which people are using the term because it’s gaining widespread popularity, thereby making it more popular. A key aspect of what is often called permaculture is really agroecology. While agroecology may not be a better-defined term, it as least has a more limited scope.

Issue b) is a sensitive topic, but it’s my sense that there’s a certain closedness to permaculture — there are remarkably few books that really get into the details on permaculture, especially given its popularity. Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden is still the only explicitly-categorized permaculture book that I find myself referencing regularly and recommending to others. Most of the original Mollison and Holmgren writing is too disorganized and sometimes even a bit questionable, and few other leaders in the field provide sufficient actionable detail about their methods (consider, for example, the books by Holzer, Bane, and others). While I understand, in general, the value of taking a permaculture design course, not everyone can afford (in the sense of money or time) to take one, nor should the knowledge be closed off to those who don’t, as some people don’t learn well in such environments anyway. Beyond the courses, there are now permaculture conferences that are extraordinarily expensive. Personally, I’ve found that I get a lot more out of digging into lots of books, talking to other gardeners who are doing something I’d like to try, and then just trying out new techniques. Some of these experiments fail, but it’s that trial and error that I find valuable. I often find myself wondering why more isn’t known about what works and what doesn’t, or more likely why such knowledge isn’t shared.

I do believe that new terms can have meaning when an effort is made to define them clearly but also when they aren’t held tightly, as in my discussion of terraforming. So going forward I won’t explicitly avoid the term permaculture (or terms like it) but I will prefer agroecology and similar terminology where possible.

the planet you can save, maybe

Recently Barath wrote to me:

Peter Singer’s ‘The Life You Can Save’ argument came to mind listening to last weeks’ C-Realm episode.  This was the question of whether we each have an obligation to do as much as we can to save the lives of others and if so (a) why limit it to just human life (given Singer’s anti-speciesist thinking) and (b) is Singer’s narrow formulation right?  Specifically, Singer argues that we should contribute to feed the hungry, etc. but I wonder if ecological restoration projects that have very long but big payoffs are actually better, but harder to quantify.  That is, how does one reason about such ethical questions once they depend upon unknowable or hard to quantify evolving scientific understanding?

These are really good questions.  To begin to answer them, here’s Singer’s argument from The Life You Can Save website:

If we could easily save the life of a child, we would. For example, if we saw a child in danger of drowning in a shallow pond, and all we had to do to save the child was wade into the pond, and pull him out, we would do so. The fact that we would get wet, or ruin a good suit, doesn’t really count when it comes to saving a child’s life.

UNICEF estimates that about 19,000 children die every day from preventable, poverty-related causes. Yet, at the same time almost a billion people live very comfortable lives, with money to spare for many things that are not at all necessary. (When did you last spend money on something to drink, when drinkable water was available for nothing?)

This is a slightly less formal version of an argument he made in the 1970s in his (in)famous “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, and which was also formulated (independently, I believe) by Louis C.K.  The upshot is that affluent people ought to devote more—a lot more—of their resources and effort to helping those in direst poverty.

It makes sense to ask, when presented with this argument, whether it can be generalized beyond specifically human harms and benefits.  What about harms and benefits to the greater environment?  In fact, this kind of generalization is what I took Kris de Decker to have done  when I tried to reconstruct his argument for bottled water consumption.  But as Barath points out, Singer holds  anti-speciesist commitments which appear to broaden the scope of the conclusion.  The principle at work in Singer’s original argument, for example, is:

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

What kind of things count as the “something bad” we should be worried about preventing?  Human suffering, certainly.  But anti-speciesism tells us that we can’t simply neglect the moral significance of nonhumans.  Are we thereby also obligated to prevent environmental harms?

The answer to this is pretty long, actually.  First, it’s true that Singer’s against speciesism, but speciesism is just the idea that species membership alone justifies differential treatment.  So it’s consistent to be against speciesism but still hold that some species are more important than others, morally speaking, if the reason isn’t simply species membership.  And in fact this is what Singer holds.  Singer’s variety of utilitarianism is based on interest- or preference-satisfaction.

Detour into moral theory

Technically, Singer’s famous argument is not utilitarian, and its soundness doesn’t depend on accepting utilitarianism.  But it’s close to utilitarianism in a crucial respect, and I’m going to ignore the differences in what follows.  (Pedants and/or ethicists be damned.)

So.  Utilitarianism can be thought of as a conjunction of two ideas.  First, that rightness consists in maximizing the good.  Second, that the good is happiness.  (There are many, many variations on these ideas but the family of utilitarian theories generally adheres to them.)  But now we need to know what happiness is.  The classical utilitarians—James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and (arguably) John Stuart Mill—held that happiness is pleasure.  Hence they’re known as hedonistic utilitarians. For hedonistic utilitarianism, all pain and pleasure count alike, no matter what kind of being you are.  Hence Bentham’s famous plea on behalf of nonhuman animals: “the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”

But there are widely acknowledged difficulties with the idea that happiness is pleasure, and later utilitarian writers substituted different conceptions of happiness.  Singer opts for happiness as interest- or preference-satisfaction: roughly, getting what you like, or what’s good for you given the kind of being you are.

Because there is a spectrum of animal complexity, different species will have different interests.  Some animals merely have interests in staying alive and avoiding pain.  Human beings have many interests on top of that, and those interests are influenced by our individual makeups, our cultural setting, our level of education, our past struggles, and so on.  Thus a human who is badly off (say, living a life of grinding poverty) is, according to Singer, much worse off than a nonhuman animal (even an intelligent one like a pig) in analogously impoverished circumstances, because the human has many more interests, and most of those interests are more serious than the pig’s.  And death for a human is worse than death for other animals, since human beings have interests in their life plans, in their family’s well-being, etc.

So although Singer takes all interests equally, some interests are more serious than others, and some beings will have a greater number of interests frustrated by adverse conditions.  It turns out, then, that humans are—in a sense—more important than other species, although not every human interest trumps other animals’ interests.  Singer thinks e.g. vegetarianism is obligatory because no human interest in pleasure can outweigh an animal’s interest in staying alive.  But IIRC he is ok with some restricted kinds of medical testing on nonhuman animals, due to the importance of medical science.

The planet you can save?

Singer himself probably would not extend the argument from “the life you can save” to include the environment, broadly construed.  That’s because that argument depends on comparing outcomes as to their relative goodness/badness, and the way Singer assesses goodness/badness is in terms of interest-satisfaction.  Only a few animals (the sentient ones) have morally relevant interests in his sense, plants have none, rocks have none, ecosystems (indeed anything above the level of an individual organism) have none.  To the extent that ecological properties figure into his argument, they will figure indirectly as things conducive to good human lives.

That said, we could ask a couple of questions.  First, what kind of position would we get if we took Singer’s argument seriously, but jettisoned his conception of the good?  E.g. we could take up a conception of the good which is not only non-anthropcentric but fully ecocentric.  (The resulting position would probably be something like what I think of as Derrick Jensen’s: radical action to destroy civilization.)  Second, what happens if we stay with Singer’s view but amend it to take into account future people?

This is getting toward question (b), about whether even the narrow formulation of the argument is correct, given future human interests.  Tim Mulgan (Ethics for a Broken World) is someone who takes utilitarianism seriously, but who thinks that most ethicists haven’t yet learned to take future people into account.  When you do, he thinks, you realize that future persons stand to us in (almost) exactly the same way that today’s global poor do.  One group is distant in time, the other is distant is space, but exactly the same principles of justice apply.  So, Mulgan would say, Singer’s insights haven’t been pressed far enough, and once we see they apply to future people we find that we are behaving grossly immorally.  We ought to stop taking resources which future people need, we ought to take radical action to stop our destruction of future people’s climate, and we ought to live much, much more modestly, devoting our nonessential time and effort to making things right by the future.

But this conclusion is arrived at by entirely anthropocentric means—the only things considered morally significant  are people, and all other goods are instrumental to the welfare of people.  So we can make a case for taking the environment seriously, indeed for radical preservation of ecological systems, purely on anthropocentric utilitarian grounds, just by treating future people as equally important.  And if we, like Singer, extend moral consideration to some nonhuman animals, then the case for ecological preservation becomes even stronger.

(Interestingly enough, these ideas have played out between two utilitarians I know (call them ‘P’ and ‘T’).  After taking a flight to a conference in Europe, P mentioned to T that he’d bought carbon offsets.  T responded, “Why would you ever buy carbon offsets when you could donate that money to poverty relief?”)

Action and uncertainty

But now there is the question of how to evaluate actual proposed courses of action when the outcomes are uncertain.  The standard utilitarian answer is to do an expected utility calculation: multiply the value of an outcome by its probability of occurring, and, for evaluating actions, sum the expected utility of each action’s possible outcomes.  Then go with the action that comes out on top.  Of course, this is going to be difficult even for  short-timeframe decisions, and there’s idealization involved in assigning numerical values to outcomes, but your meat-and-potatoes utilitarian will say that that’s the ideal to aim for.

This answer becomes much less helpful when the far future is concerned, since it’s so hard to predict, and it becomes deeply complicated when there is uncertainty not only about future outcomes, but about which model for estimating future outcomes we should use in the first place. (Or do we combine models, and if so, how should we do that? etc.)  I certainly don’t have an answer to that, but because I’m not a utilitarian, I don’t really feel the need to have one.  I would guess that some philosophers who work on climate change have made proposals, but I’m not actually very familiar with that literature.  And there might be something helpful in the literature on evidence-based policy, though I’m not sure.

A shorter answer to all this might be that, no matter what ethical theory you’re working with, ethical reasoning always happens by conjoining normative premises about what one ought to do with descriptive premises about empirical fact.  When those descriptive premises become highly uncertain, then one’s reasoning about what to do is concomitantly uncertain.  But how much of a problem that is depends on your ethical theory to begin with.  Utilitarians will insist there is always a right thing to do; virtue ethicists (for example) not so much.  But I think this whole discussion is illustrative of a real problem for utilitarianism, given uncertainty about the future: all of an action’s consequences for happiness matter.  Thus utilitarianism might tell us to help the global poor (as Singer thinks), but it might also tell us to let them eat cake.  Everything depends on the empirical facts about which policy will yield the most happiness over time, but in many cases we just don’t have access to those facts.

For my part, I think that very broad principles for decision-making under uncertainty, such as the precautionary principle, go a long way, and needn’t rely on utilitarian justification.  But that’s another conversation, and anyhow I have never really achieved equilibrium in my own ethical convictions.

We Can Feed the World / No We Can’t / No We Won’t

There are, and have been for a few decades now, competing narratives about food, hunger, and population. And supporting these narratives are a large number of divergent arguments from people with an even larger array of ideological perspectives. I’ve been puzzled for some time that these narratives not only have co-existed for as long as they have, but that it’s still unclear which is true, and more than that, which of the supporting arguments make sense and which don’t isn’t clear.

Below I’d like to attempt to break these narratives into three (oversimplified) categories and highlight a few recent and not-so-recent arguments supporting them.

We Can Feed the World, part 1.
This argument comes in a number of forms. The first, most obvious, and most prominent one is that of the agribusiness world, which says and has said for decades that new chemistry and new genetic engineering can and will continue increasing yield. The claim they often make is stronger than this, saying that only such agribusiness science and engineering can increase yields and feed the world, and that without them people will starve. (Scientific American had a recent issue dedicated to this, and it was, frankly, a bit embarrassing to see such a magazine be so narrow in what science they considered in making their judgments.)

However, often ignored in this perspective is the fact that a billion people around the world are going hungry already, and many more are food insecure. Many farmers who have switched to using these agribusiness methods have found themselves struggling to pay for them. They have also found that the techniques, when they work at all, have little staying power: artificial fertilizers only provide a boost for so long before already-depleted soil is stripped of structure, other nutrients, and soil life and can no longer produce high yields; GMO, pesticide, and herbicide manufacturers struggle to keep pace with natural adaptations against their methods. So while it’s true these systems are feeding the world, it’s not clear they can continue to.

We Can Feed the World, part 2.
A less common but still prominent argument made by Lappe and others in books such as Diet for a Small Planet and Hope’s Edge, is that scarcity of food is a matter of proper distribution of food and/or income, and a matter of not wasting food via the present-day industrial food system. That is, there is enough food being grown to feed the world, but that instead of going to feed the world, this plant-based food is either used as animal feed for heavy meat eaters in wealthy nations, is used in the production of highly-processed industrial food, or is simply wasted.

This argument is based upon a slightly shaky premise. Even if the world were short, say, enough food for 1 billion people, and there were no waste in the current food system, there are probably enough other sources of calories that could be turned to that are outside of the human economy — that is, plants and animals that are currently not viewed as food but could be. That’s not to say that it’s preferable to increase the human footprint on the planet, but rather that the argument is premised on the footprint we have today and that footprint isn’t fixed.

Turning this reasoning on its head, we find that the argument that we can feed the planet using the food that’s grown today, with today’s footprint, doesn’t squarely face the fact that humanity has already far overshot carrying capacity and has appropriated far too many ecosystems for its use. That is, for this argument to hold — making the big assumption that the economic systems that make today’s food system exist were to be radically altered — we’d need to be able to replace all of the food growing going on across the globe in a way that puts it on a sustainable footing. Maybe this is possible, and Lappe and others give plenty of examples of how it can be done better on a small scale, but as I’ll discuss later, a large question is whether we will, not whether we can.

No We Can’t, part 1.
There are some in the mainstream of this discussion who are nevertheless pessimistic about food availability. In this camp I’ve seen arguments for decreasing the birth rate in poor nations (primarily) as they view the problem as a matter of population, and that energy/resource footprints aren’t an issue in the discussion. I’ve never found mainstream “no we can’t” arguments to be particularly well thought out, as they’re often used as a bludgeon to make a political point (e.g. “people in country X are hungry not because globalization destroyed their local economic and agricultural systems but because they have too many people, and we can’t fix that”).

No We Can’t, part 2.
Many eminent, less-mainstream thinkers fall into a second category of “no we can’t feed the world” thinking, including Meadows, Catton, Diamond, and others who take a large-scale, long-term ecological view of the predicament humanity is in today. They argue that all societies and all systems that overshoot their ecological basis a) are eventually forced to return to within that basis, b) often degrade the basis itself by being in overshoot, and that c) this process happens so slowly (over many human generations) that it’s easy for these societies to believe that they have agency, d) no past societies have been able to avoid this consequence and there is little reason to believe that now is different, and e) no one subsystem (e.g. food, manufacturing, etc.) is independent and thus all subsystems rise and fall together.

Surprisingly even mainstream commentators like Thomas Friedman have gotten in on this kind of argument, though of course after making the argument that we’re in overshoot, he manages to ignore its fundamental conclusion and instead argues that we’ll find a way out.

No We Won’t, part 1.
Last year Adam wrote a nice analysis of a Toby Hemenway article on the resilience of the food system. He made the case that while Hemenway’s arguments on how the industrial food system might continue to function and feed humanity (even while fossil fuels become more expensive and scarce) make sense in the way Lappe’s arguments make sense, there’s reason to be concerned that market conditions and public policy will make entrenched actors in the food system slow to adapt to changing conditions. Thus it’s likely that people will continue to fall off the back of the truck as things decline. Beyond simply the monetary incentive to continue growing crops for non-food uses, there is also significant inertia and sunk costs in the system that are likely to make change difficult. I find myself in agreement with this part of the argument: “I’m optimistic about the proliferation of kitchen gardens in urban and suburban spaces, but transforming land currently zoned for industrial monoculture is a much more daunting task.” I’d like to consider where this leaves us next.

Energetic limits of land productivity.
To understand what sorts of physical limits might exist on food production, I did a quick calculation. While I’m sure there are many better estimates out there, this should give us a rough idea of whether it’s even reasonable to imagine that 7 billion or more humans can be fed sustainably. Let’s start with an estimate of 200 W/m^2 of sunlight, globally averaged over night and day, arriving at the Earth’s surface. Average photosynthetic efficiency is about 1-2% for normal plants (only some algae and a few rare plants like sugarcane get higher efficiency). So that’s 2-4 W/m^2 of plant energy assuming the ground is entirely covered. Then let’s allow 50% for the plant to perform its own metabolic functions, so that’s 1-2 W/m^2 of harvestable energy. Given that a person requires 100 W (about 2000 kcal / day), that results in 50-100 m^2 of land requirement per person, which is about 500-1000 sq ft, which happens to be about what David Duhon and John Jeavons found is the minimum land area on which one can feed oneself growing and eating mostly potatoes in a perfectly-managed, intensively-cultivated smallholding.

So no new technology is needed, nor is new technology possible, to improve the efficiency with which we can produce food. That is, the arguments made by those in the first camp — those who argue we must increase yields through new techniques in industrial agriculture — are bunk, as techniques have already been developed to deliver the maximal yield possible given the sunshine falling on the Earth. Literally the only way out of this (energetically), I think, is to build nuclear fusion plants and then use the energy from that to produce food somehow — that’s the only possible renewable non-solar source of energy — but this remains firmly in the realm of science fiction.

However, when we look at the amount of farmland under cultivation today, we see that it’s far more than is required to feed all of humanity ten times over if such intensive cultivation were used — perhaps 500 billion people (as my friend John pointed out). The catch, I think, is twofold.

The first catch is that we must consider total human energy consumption rather than simply what humans require to stay alive. In the absence of fossil fuels, this energy will come in large part from plant sources. To begin with, intensive cultivation requires cycling back all nutrients perfectly to keep it within 100 m^2. Otherwise it requires about 3x the land area, with the remainder used for compost crops and letting the land rest (with 3x being a rule of thumb I’ve seen in a number of sustainable agricultural methods). This ignores the water cycle and other limits for simplicity. Average energy consumption globally today is 2kW / person (16 TW / 7 billion = 2285 W). So that means we need to roughly scale down the arable land by a factor of 20 (to get the portion used for just food), and that’s with perfect nutrient cycling. Take a factor of 3 on that for compost crops, and we’re at 8 billion people living at 2kW. If we had no other impact on the planet and could do perfect sustainable organic agriculture with most people living in lower-latitude temperate and tropical regions we could sustain 8 billion people on the planet.

A couple big flaws in this estimate is that a large fraction of arable land is used to feed animals for meat, and that the 2kW used per person often involves taking the products of nature and processing them, thereby consuming an outsized portion of nature relative to that energy budget (e.g. it takes much less energy to cut down a tree than it took the tree to grow). The first could be fixed by saying that we could sustain 8 billion people on a perfectly managed vegan organic diet, and with meat, somewhere between 2-4 billion. Even this ignores the possibility of getting some of the 2kW / person from photovoltaics and wind turbines. Nevertheless, the crux of this calculation is that sustainable techniques exist to produce roughly as much food as the industrial food system produces today, but also roughly as much as is possible given energetic limits.

The second catch is the one Adam identified — converting backyard gardens is one thing, but turning the farmed-out land of the American Midwest into Jeavons-style smallholdings is another thing altogether.

Premises and Conclusions.
It’s a bit odd to end on both premises and conclusions, but there are a couple of premises that are unstated in this discussion that span the categories. Specifically, this discussion is premised on the notions that feeding the people of the world is a) good and b) hard to do either now or in the future. I think both of these are true, but I’ve seen arguments that b) isn’t fundamentally true. Neoprimitivists tend to make this argument, among others: that the world is naturally abundant and that as long as societies remain uncivilized (i.e. not living in cities with high resource consumption) then the Earth will provide with little effort. Whether this was true in the distant past, it’s certainly not applicable now and won’t be for many centuries.

Pulling these strands of thought together it seems to me that there’s good evidence all these perspectives are right, but on different timescales. We have a core industrial food system that can and will feed most of (but, crucially, not all of) the world in roughly the ways it is today, with feedback loops that will keep it stable. These feedbacks include the entrenched food distribution system, political lobbying of industrial farmers and agribusiness that want to keep subsidies flowing to keep their business models viable as long as possible, and the eating habits of the world. However since this system is not on a solid foundation, it will slowly (and, perhaps in short bursts, quickly) leak people and land into the two other categories — “no we can’t” and “no we won’t” — in which people go hungry due to lack of food or because the system is imbalanced and prioritizes other things over feeding people. I do think that, like Adam wrote, that kitchen gardens are likely to pick up some of the slack and my calculations indicate that quite a lot of food can be grown that way. However, in the long run, we’re unlikely to escape the ecological fate of so many past societies; our task is make the ride down as smooth as possible.

Observations and Questions

For some time I’ve been accumulating observations and questions on a variety of topics but have felt the need to have, for the former, deep analysis, and for the latter, answers. I don’t have much in the way of either, but I’d like to share them nevertheless.

Cause and Effect.

Is technological progress driving prosperity, or is prosperity driving technological progress? The conventional answer is the former, as argued by authors such as Diamandis but certainly by many others. However it’s likely that the latter is actually the dominant cause and effect relationship, with a bit of the former (making it a feedback loop).

This may be the central assumption that differs between those who expect business as usual (in technological progress at least) to continue in some form and those that don’t. That is those who expect technological progress, but who are having a hard time denying the material limits to growth, still claim that such progress can proceed unimpeded. (Kurzweil likes to point out that even the Great Depression didn’t affect technological progress.) But without a prosperous underlying society — that relies upon the mining of nonrenewable natural, social, cultural, and spiritual capital, to use Eisenstein’s phrasing — would this technological progress really continue? It seems we are going to find out the answer to this question over the next decade.

Poor Substitutes.
We’ve had nominal economic growth for a long time, but if we are to look at what’s happened, we’ve been substituting the rich with the cheap and real with the fake. One of the core reasons for this transition is that our appetites haven’t been decreasing but there are more and more people around the world entering their respective middle classes, expecting the materially-wealthy life that’s supposed to come with it.

In food: Fake olive oil, fake honey, fake sugar (in the form of artificial sweeteners — consider that at least 10 alternative sweeteners are used commonly today, including Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Stevia, Acesulfame potassium, Neotame, Xylitol, Mogroside, Thaumatin, and Isomalt).

In material goods: objects are made of thinner, less sturdy materials.

In news: the format of conventional newspapers and TV news programs hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades, but far less is going on behind the scenes to really investigate the world as budgets are cut. The same quality of news coverage can’t be done with a team of journalists a fraction the size of what was needed before.

In energy sources: this one is well known, but for completeness — we’re substituting dense, easy to extract, relatively cleaner energy sources with diffuse, hard to extract, and/or dirtier ones.

In relationships: many people can claim many more “friends” today than they could before, since they are in regular contact with a much larger group of people via social networks and the like. However, it seems unlikely that the quality of the interactions with any of those people is improved due to streamlined communication channels.

Ecosystems of Bureaucracies and Cities.

We might do a thought experiment, in which types of individuals are like types of plants or animals that move into an ecosystem / thrive in an ecosystem in different stages. Here we might consider two contexts: institutional bureaucracies and city cultures.

The radicals, innovators, crazy types are like pioneer weeds in an institution. The same goes for hipsters in cities. They forge new ground, go where others aren’t willing to, and get things ready for others to move in. However their will or interest in holding that ground wanes, and they move on to wide open spaces.

Yuppies, and their equivalents in institutions, move in later. While they contribute a little bit of creativity, innovate around the edges, they are mostly seeking stability.

It seems that there is a stable state that ecosystems reach that is rarely reached by either bureaucracies or cities. Instead, these human creations decline rather than arriving at the analogue to an old-growth forest. (Would it be a culture/community that has weathered hundreds or thousands of years in more or less the same form, one that is in balance with the world around it?)

Cataloging Euphemisms.

Our daily speech is filled with euphemisms but we don’t often work to correct them. Some of the euphemisms I’ve noticed recently that are relevant to the topic of this blog include:

Fish stocks — fish.

Harvesting — makes little sense when applied to companies, jobs, etc.

Oil production — no oil is being produced, as it was produced a long time ago.

Seeds as “infringing articles”, “copies” — the language of intellectual property does not fit biological reality.

Automobile — it doesn’t move on its own.

Public relations — is it possible to have an honest conversation with an anonymous group such as the “public”? (And what of the fact that the foundation of public relations is the work of Edward Bernays, whose book Public Relations (1945) was preceded by his book Propaganda (1928)?)

Breaking the Linear / Cyclical Duality.

Lots of authors argue that modern industrial society (and the world around it) undergoes a linear process of change (using linear to mean “in one direction”). Other say no, the processes are cyclical. Of course things are more complex than this, as interacting webs of cycles are layered on top of each other, with linear processes also playing a part, and other processes that are neither (chaotic). We might consider a few of them.

Biogeochemical cycles: ocean current conveyors of various durations, ENSO and other oscillations, Earth’s tilt and the ice age cycle, etc.

Civilization cycles: Kondratieff waves, anacyclosis, Strauss-Howe generational theory, Hindu Yugas, and short-term cycles like the business cycle.

Linear processes: entropy, solar insolation, Earth’s radiation of energy into space

Models that take into account multiple cycles, or better still a combination of multiple cycles along with linear or one-way processes can yield better results — consider multi-cyclic Hubbert analysis, such as the graph in this post by Tad Patzek on U.S. oil production.

Uneconomic Combustion.

Herman Daly introduced the idea of uneconomic growth many years ago. Have we entered the period of uneconomic combustion? Say you have X billion dollars to spend today as a large company or government, and you decide to spend it on extracting and burning some oil or coal. And say that that combustion then translates into some fractional increase in ppm of CO2, which increases the temperature curve over the coming decades and thereby increases the costs borne by society.

Where does the curve cross over? That is, today, how much growth (and thus wealth for some definition of wealth) does X billion dollars buy you vs. how much it might have bought in decades past? And have we reached a point where even in pure dollars and cents terms — setting aside human considerations — that digging up and burning more fossil fuels loses us money as a society? Is the problem that in economic terms people “discount the future”?

Algae Greenwashing.

Algae-based biodiesel, the renewable fuel miracle that has had a bright future ahead of it for at least a couple of decades, has gotten some good press recently. But the narrative in the media is, as you’d expect, very misleading. Let’s take this article in the Chronicle and deconstruct it.

Big oil took a small but significant hit Tuesday when Bay Area motorists began filling up their gas tanks with algae, becoming the first private citizens in the world to use a domestically grown product that could revolutionize the fuel industry.

It seems unlikely that big oil took any hit at all — really all that happened is that the companies making small quantities of algae-based biofuel got some good public relations (i.e. propaganda, if we’re avoiding euphemisms) in the paper.

The fuel, which is actually 20 percent algae and 80 percent petroleum, is available to any vehicle that runs on diesel, and it spews much less smog and ozone-depleting greenhouse gases, Horton said.

First of all, most gasoline in the U.S. is 90 percent petroleum and 10 percent ethanol, so most drivers could make a claim that they’re using fuel that is as much a biofuel. Second, notice that while taking about greenhouse gases, the topic is switched to “smog and ozone-depleting” gases, which, while a concern, is not the primary concern in the mind of most readers about greenhouse gases. Maybe they phrased it this way because in sum the algae fuel (in its life cycle) actually produces more climate-impacting greenhouse gases than petroleum-derived diesel?

Pesticide Greenwashing.

Things that are supposed to be green but aren’t, like algae-based fuel, aren’t the only sources of greenwashing. Pesticide makers (from what I can tell, primarily Bayer and Syngenta, though they hide their involvement carefully) have been running misleading ad campaigns to get people to visit their new website where they talk about the importance of being “responsible” in the use of pesticides (but of course starting from the premise that they must be used in the first place, and can of course be used in a safe manner). The site, and corresponding ad campaign, may be the result of a deal that the chemical industry made to avoid penalties / regulation.

Is EROEI a useful concept?

The concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested is common in peak oil analyses — tar sands, for instance, get far less energy back for the energy that goes in than a conventional, on-land oil well. At a macro level — society-wide — it’s probably a useful concept due to factors such as White’s law.

However, I’ve come to the conclusion that EROEI is probably not that meaningful for any individual technology or fuel. First, most often EROEI calculations omit some part of the energy input analysis, or only follow the chain back so far, yielding inaccurate or non-comparable results. Second, energy arbitrage is useful for some time (even when we might frown on it) — we have that going on today in many forms, including methane into biofuels via fertilizers, methane plus tar sands into oil, and coal into photovoltaics and wind turbines (due to factories in Asia). It’s due to these factors that it seems EROEI should be avoided when focusing on any one particular energy source.

Heavy Metal.

A few years ago, a younger relative asked me a basic question: how’d mercury get in fish? I explained the sources and how industrial society has dispersed it, how natural processes caused the mercury to be bioaccumulated, etc. Since fish comprise the largest sector of food that humans largely don’t cultivate directly but catch in the wild (relative to other meats or produce), this problem is somewhat beyond remediation. That is, we can stop the pollution, but it may be a long time before we stop seeing mercury in fish.

However, we do have some control over land. So here’s a basic question I’ve had for a while: how do I remove lead from soil? How do I remove other contaminants from soil? In urban areas, especially those with houses / buildings over a few decades old, lead-based paint has slowly entered the soil. Land near roadways also accumulated lead from leaded fuels. Arsenic was once used as a pesticide, and it remains in some places. And the list goes on: chromium, selenium, PCBs.

Beyond simply physically digging up and hauling out soil, it seemed there must be better options. There are some biological approaches that use hyperaccumulators, including sunflowers and some types of mushrooms. (Of course these would then have to be taken somewhere not used for growing food.) There are also chemical options, which rely upon reactions to deactivate contaminants; one of the most promising I’ve seen is based on distributing ground up fish bones.

The Metaphor of Braess’s Paradox.

I mentioned in post last year the idea of Braess’s Paradox. The crux is that it’s possible in a network — road or computer or any other kind of network — to increase the capacity of the network but decrease its throughput. That is, by adding something, say lanes to a highway, it’s possible to actually slow down traffic.

While the paradox is interesting on its own, I didn’t want to explore it directly as much as consider the broader question of situations in which we have to sacrifice something (or at least feel as though we’re sacrificing something) for some longer term or other sort of gain, a gain that may be counter-intuitive or even hidden. Murphy’s Energy Trap and a similar observations by Meadows (in the context of global dynamics in Limits to Growth and lags in the global system that tend to lead to overshoot and decline) come to mind.

Are there old philosophical arguments about the nature of short-term sacrifice / long-term gain or changing the perspective one uses to realize that it’s not really sacrifice? And similarly, are there old parables and fables that convey similar ideas? While in the particulars Baess’s Paradox is new, the overall concept seems like a very old one.

An Ecological-Economic Shock.

It’s been said for a long time by many (as we asked Herman Daly about), that until there’s an ecologically-rooted economic shock, we may not collective shift our thinking in fundamental ways to move away from an infinite growth-based economic system. What if the need for such a shock is deeper than that — something akin to the idea underlying annealing? That is, we are stuck in a local maximum, one that is far from other potential maxima.

The question here is multi-part. First, what is the opposite of, in Naomi Klein’s terminology, disaster capitalism? The opposite isn’t moderated capitalism — that’s what we have every once in a while right now, and the system is oscillating between the two states of regular and disaster capitalism. Whatever the opposite is — and I’m not sure what it would look like — if it were to be the normal operating mode for some time it might allow for things to renormalize to some more sane midpoint. Second, what might cause such a shock, at what scale, and what impacts would it have? Third, what would the upsides and downsides be? What would be the timescale of these effects?

Taleb has argued that trying to predict when such a shock might happen is futile. So the case would be to prepare for the impact in advance, and in doing so improve the resilience of families, communities, and society overall. Is the overwhelming threat of a shock sufficient to cause action? Would the shock be self-fulfilling in such a case? (For example, some argue that the more people know about peak oil, the worse the effects will be as hoarding, speculation, and the like run wild.) Will the shock coincide with a recession, or will it look like something completely different?

The Decline of Falsifiability

Recently there has been much discussion and debate on the revelations of government surveillance programs. While I think the specifics of those revelations, and the debate around them, are interesting in themselves, I think the manner in which the debate is happening points to a deeper issue that our society is facing that I haven’t seen addressed: the decline of falsifiability.

Bruce Schneier asked recently what it would take before we believe what companies say about their cooperation in government surveillance programs. This same question can be asked in many other contexts, but let’s start with the one he asked it in.

The key difficulty here is falsifiability, or rather the lack of it. The surveillance programs the companies may or may not be involved in are secret. The application of publicly-passed laws relies upon a secret interpretation of those laws, presented before a secret court. Most members of congress (e.g., those outside of the Gang of Eight), who vote on the budgets for these secret programs and for the laws that are used before the secret court, are not fully aware of the programs or their use. And when these secret interpretations of laws are applied in secret programs to conduct surveillance, those who are ordered by the secret court to comply must themselves keep their involvement secret.

Thus our national security laws have moved us to a non-falsifiable world. That is, a government official may claim that these policies have “made us safer” or a company spokesperson can deny involvement in the programs, and it is essentially impossible for us to determine whether their statements are true or false (or more broadly to know the extent of the surveillance programs: who is involved, how, and what they’re doing). The key aspect to falsifiability is not that we care about something being true or false, right or wrong, but rather that we care that something can be shown to be true or false, right or wrong (or even some shade of gray). That gives us confidence that we can use evidence to guide our decisions and change course. When no evidence can be presented one way or the other, we exit the realm of the falsifiable.

One of the strengths of science is that is rooted not in fact, as it’s often described, but in falsifiability. (Obviously a lot has been written on this before; Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is of course worth reading to understand potential pitfalls.) Without falsifiability, we end up in a pseudoscience or faith-based world — faith not in the specific sense of religion, but more broadly in the sense of belief in the absence of seen evidence.

So the decline of falsifiability is clearly seen in this first category: the non-falsifiable.

One reason, I think, that modern representative democracies generally embrace science not just for understanding the world but also as a process of reasoning about policy is that it allows for issues to be resolved relatively cleanly. Debates do not need to be had ad nauseum without resolution because evidence can be presented to help resolve them. Without a process built upon falsifiability, we encourage two problematic ways of thinking about problems (that are mostly but not completely independent): conspiracy theory and ideology. Most conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable: they hinge on some set of assertions for which there exists no hypothetical evidence that can be used to disprove the theory. Most ideologies rely upon faith regardless of evidence that disproves part or all of the ideology.

A large fraction of debates appear to fall into this second and growing category: the falsifiability-irrelevant.

These are things that are falsifiable, but a presentation of evidence causes no shift in societal views. That is, they are driven by ideology. Trickle-down and austerity economics, and anthropogenic climate change are examples of this. In the former case, the evidence indicates it is a flawed theory but its adherents don’t care; more recently, a core pillar of austerity economics (as implemented in current policy) was debunked but to little effect among its proponents. In the latter case a large body of evidence indicates that it is a sound theory and yet its detractors don’t care.

A little over a decade ago, Carl Sagan warned about the prevalence of pseudoscience, and attempted to make a statement about what differentiates a society based upon science from one based upon pseudoscience. It was an important argument about the importance of falsifiability from an important scientist. (It’s a shame that Sagan didn’t think to put his own technological utopian beliefs under the same microscope as many of the other beliefs he skewered.) However, one of the key points Sagan made is that the decline in scientific thinking is a major issue not because pseudoscience is on the rise — as he argued, probably correctly, it’s been with us and will always be with us. Rather the danger is that we live in a society with greater technological power than ever before — power to shape the entire global ecosystem — and shouldn’t wield that power without a greater understanding of science.

The two categories above — the non-falsifiable and the falsifiability-irrelevant — together contribute to a growing issue: the non-discreditable. We see that many ideologies cannot be permanently discredited. Similarly, individuals can safely hold just about any viewpoint on many issues, either because they can’t be proven wrong or nobody cares even if they are; thus we see many pundits, thinkers, and political leaders who can’t be discredited in the eyes of the media. No matter what they say or do, their viewpoints are considered legitimate and need no supporting evidence. When contrary evidence is presented, it is quickly swept under the rug. That is, ideology trumps everything.

To return to the surveillance example, James Clapper (now Director of National Intelligence) is just one example of many — he led a team that made huge mistakes in the leadup to the Iraq war, and now he’s having to “correct the record” on statements he made to congress. In both cases his statements were in line with ideology, if not with reality. Many of his other statements are simply non-falsifiable. The list of such individuals and ideas in modern American life is long, and you can find them in both the public and private sectors.

While we should evaluate each statement on its own merits, reputation matters: what someone has said in the past affects how we judge their current thinking. When we find out that certain people who argued that smoking does not contribute to cancer are now arguing that carbon dioxide does not contribute to climate change, their past position certainly seems relevant, and it seems that they should be discredited in the eyes of the public. But they aren’t.

We may now be in a time with the largest fraction of the world’s human population living in capitalist representative democracies, and despite the fact that these societies are rooted in some sense in scientific decision-making, we find that they are unable to confront the grand problems they face — climate change, resource depletion, and ecological overshoot — due to the decline of falsifiability and the rise of unshakable ideology.

Many ancient societies were ruled by claims of divine right; royal proclamations were not falsifiable. Post-Magna Carta England was more responsive, for example, than other old societies, but not as much so as today’s England. But we don’t have to look to the distant past to see what it looks like for dogma to trump reason. A few decades ago Vaclav Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless, in the context of Soviet Czechoslovakia, a warning well worth heeding:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe…

…Yet, as we have seen, ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of power, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the power structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such. Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it. The significance of phenomena no longer derives from the phenomena themselves, but from their locus as concepts in the ideological context. Reality does not shape theory, but rather the reverse. Thus power gradually draws closer to ideology than it does to reality; it draws its strength from theory and becomes entirely dependent on it. This inevitably leads, of course, to a paradoxical result: rather than theory, or rather ideology, serving power, power begins to serve ideology. It is as though ideology had appropriated power from power, as though it had become dictator itself. It then appears that theory itself, ritual itself, ideology itself, makes decisions that affect people, and not the other way around.