Friday, June 26, 2009

The Energy Web

I have been reading a lot of science fiction and survival novels this summer. I re-read Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon! and George R. Stewart's classic, Earth Abides. I re-read the first book of S.M. Stirling Emberverse series, Dies the Fire. On Tuesday, I was browsing in the bookstore, looking for a new thriller for which I had read a review, when I came across a new "end of the world" story by William S. Forstchen called One Second After. About the aftermath of an EMP attack on the North American continent, I could barely put it down. So now I am reading that along with the more hopeful novel of a libertarian revolution, Heinlein's immortal The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

I am re-reading and reading these kinds of books, because I have been thinking about the complex web of interactions that makes up a civilization. My original scientific training was in ecology and evolution, such scientists do a lot of thinking about how energy moves through ecosystems via species interactions (such as predation) from the photosynthetic primary producers on to the primary consumers, secondary and tertiary consumers, and how it fans out to the scavengers at the edges. We call this the "food web" but it is really about the movement of energy, gathered by plants from the photons of the sun, and stored in carbon bonds, that are broken by combustion in a process called cellular respiration, which is the process of breaking those bonds in order to move the energy into more easily spendable ATP molecules, which are the energy currency of living cells.

Thus I was excited but not surprised when reading the Forstchen book to come across this passage:

"The web of our society . . . was like the beautiful spider webs he'd find as a boy in the back lot after dawn on summer days, dew making them visible. Vast, intricate things. And at the single touch of a match, the web just collapsed and all that was left for the spider to do , if it survived that day, was to rebuild the web entirely from scratch." (One Second After, p. 260).

Our whole advanced civilization is built of the gossamer webbing of energy interactions, fueled by the ancient photon energy stored in the carbon bonds of fossil fuels. We have not yet found an alternative source of energy that is as efficient a supply of power by which to run our complex web of interactions, except nuclear energy, which we have made prohibitively expensive and difficult to deploy through regulation.

Today, Congress is voting, and may well make those fossil fuels by which we run our civilization prohibitively expensive by a tax system they call cap-and-trade. We currently have no quickly deployable alternative that is ready and able to run a complex, industrial society.

For example, think about medicines, as the protagonist does in One Second After:

"The medicines. Yes, they were out there, someplace. . . . but the factories that made them were in the cities, and the cities had no power, and the people who worked in the factories were hunkered down or scattered refugees . . . And even if the factories did suddenly turn on, the [medicine] was processed from genetically altered bacteria in labs . . . a thousand miles away. The bottles it was then loaded into? Perhaps made in Mexico and trucked to the lab a thousand miles away and then loaded back aboard climate controlled trucks, and taken to airports and priority shipped in containers specially designed, those containers perhaps made in Mississippi. And so it went." (One Second After, p. 259).

And so it goes. For every single thing we ordinarily depend upon to make our lives possible in such numbers. Do you know where your water comes from? For most of us, pumps that require power are used somewhere in the process of getting it from the source to our homes and factories and places of business.

What about food? It takes energy to produce food in the abundance necessary for an American farmer to feed his family, and 20 additional people somewhere in the world. Energy is required to run the tractors for planting and harvest, and to produce the insecticides and herbicides and fertilizers necessary to have transformed farming from a subsistence operation to one that can feed the world. It takes more energy to process the food, to make it safe for human consumption, and to transport it to our cities and towns.

And so it goes for every single thing we use to make our living on this planet.
Living is not free. Not for the birds of the air, not for the bees in honey, and not even for the lilies of the field, that do indeed 'toil and spin' using that photon energy captured from the sun to make glucose which they then use up in the business of living.

The difference between them and us is this. In the natural food web, the efficiency between each node averages out at about 10%. This means that when a plant captures the energy from the photon into the carbon bonds in glucose, 90% of the energy is lost. And the same thing happens when the grazer then eats the plant. And again when the predator eats the grazer, and so forth across the food web.

However, by the design and use of technology that converts fossil fuels into energy-- technology being the human ecological niche--we are now able to get average efficiencies of 30 - 40%, which means that we can support a much more intricate web than we were able to as hunters and gatherers.

Sometimes I think that our leaders are like lemmings, inexplicably leading us to to a very real and very deadly collapse of technology for reasons that they (and we) do not understand and cannot fathom. The cap-and-tax scheme will reduce the efficiency by which we transfer energy for living throughout our civilization. And the costs, defined in dollars, will be shouldered by all of us, from Nancy Pelosi in her private jet, to the day-laborer driving that 1970's era clunker to the job site.

We will pay more for food, for transportation, for heat and light, for life-saving medicines and for life-giving water. And this economic suicide, like all economic disasters, will hit the working poor first, and hit them harder. Just as the English working mother of the industrial revolution had reason to bless James Watt for the power that provided her with clean cotton underwear every day, so will the American working mother have reason to curse Congress for taking that power out of her reach, condemning her and her children to lower standards of sanitation, nutrition and comfort. She will be forced to choose between heat, light, food, and/or medicine.

Our amazing energy web, delicate and beautiful, can be collapsed very quickly by the irrational actions of Congress. Nature's learning curve is far more steep.. It is human beings who will suffer.

These people in Congress are not benevolent. They live for a momentary gain, and do not consider the future of tax slavery and misery to which they condemn their own posterity. They are like lemmings running blindly over a cliff.

And it will not matter one iota in the vast reaches of planetary time. The climate cycles of the planet will continue to wax and wane in great temporal cycles. Species will come, and species will go. Earth abides.


silvermine said...


Amie said...

You know that old saying "if pro is the opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?"...

They certainly proved that old saying correct today, and in a very not-funny way! I am appalled and sickened and furious with our gov't.

Monica said...

"The difference between them and us is this.... by the design and use of technology that converts fossil fuels into energy-- technology being the human ecological niche--we are now able to get average efficiencies of 30 - 40%, which means that we can support a much more intricate web than we were able to as hunters and gatherers."

Hm. I wouldn't say this is really a difference between other organisms and us. The amount of food energy ingested that carries over into actual physical matter is only about 10%. But that's not the same as the capture of that food energy as ATP, no? Those figures are always higher, and the stored carbon in oil is like any other source of energy. As for efficiency, aerobic respiration is actually a bit more efficient at conversion to a usable energy source than the internal combustion engine, isn't it?

AS for the political parts, this article gives me some hope:

Still, bureaucracy seems to move much more slowly in the US than in some of these other countries (NZ, Australia -- both of which have a no-nonsense kind of common sense) mentioned in the article. We're living in dangerous times.

Thanks for writing this. I shared it on facebook.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Yes, once the energy is ingested by the organism, we see reasonably high efficiency if aerobic respiration is employed.

My point is not the conversion of the energy that actually makes it to PSN or respiration. My point is that 90% of that sunlight that hits the photoreceptors in the leaf of the plant is lost prior to photosynthesis or in the (mysterious--as my advanced botany prof used to call it) Z process by which the photons are boosted across membranes. And of that energy that is stored by the plant, approx. 90% is again lost prior to getting to respiration itself. And so on, at every node in the food web. It is true that some nodes are more efficient than others, but the rule of thumb ecologists use is 10%. It's a generalization that works well when considering energy issues in ecosystem ecology.

Human beings, via the technology niche, have raised the carrying capacity (K) for our species through technology. But that technology requires the sustained use of energy sources that can run an industrial economy. If we refuse to continue to use the energy sources we have prior to having an equally sustained and efficient replacement, then we bring K down. That brings a die-off or a crash.
6,706,993,152 people and counting cannot be supported by subsistence farming.

Amie: start calling your senator and then start thinking about a tax revolt. What would it mean and how would we accomplish it?

Silvermine: Yep. Sigh. I was so hoping to write a different blog today!

Anonymous said...

I always emjoy your posts and comments when I come across them elsewhere. I particularly liked the point that the energy chain in our technology niche, while robust in a rational society, is susceptible to rapid dissolution in the current irrationalism.

Along those same lines, I noticed that you are reading "Radical Son" by Horowitz. There is a certain irony in David, as true believer, being cast as a useful idiot by the BPP. I think that was the first time I understood the schizophrenia of the left; the hopeless dupes front for the truly malevolent.

C. Andrew