Fish Poop, Snowballs, and why not being evil isn't good enough
There's a meme circulating that "Many PEOPLE Did Not Evolve Respect For The Environment Of Their REMOTE ANCESTORS !!!". As many memes are, this one is wrong, though its sentiments are understandable and even admirable.
It's exceptional in the number of levels on which it is wrong.
Fish poop in the sea -- and if that's not shitting where you eat, what is? But let's got back a bit further.
Big picture: what is life, and what is the purpose (if not the meaning) of life?
Biological life is a dissipative system: "a thermodynamically open system which is operating out of, and often far from, thermodynamic equilibrium in an environment with which it exchanges energy and matter."
That is: living organisms develop complexity within, and often among themselves, in order to utilize existing resources, entropic gradients, which both support the complexity required and increase the net generation of entropy within the system.
A crucial element of dissipative systems is that the power flow, the energy flux, is required to sustain the complexity. Remove or reduce the energy flow, and complexity is reduced, further reducing the net power flow.
An entropy gradient may be an energy store, an energy flux, a material resource with useful properties (or some mix of the above), or an arrangement of other systems themselves exploiting entropy gradients.
There are additional elements, generally involving self-reproduction, autonomous existence, and heritable characteristics. Autonomous existence means that what we generally consider life forms have within them the mechanism for their own reproduction -- cells are alive, viruses aren't. A virus is simply a pattern, a cell is a pattern and the pattern-replicating machinery. Heritability is generally represented by DNA.
Life degrades resources faster than they would in the absence of life. Which could be called its purpose. It's certainly its effect.
There's a principle called the Darwin-Lotka Energy Law, named by ecologist Howard Odum, which adds the concept of evolution to this entropic relation:. It states that the maximization of power for useful purposes is the criterion for natural selection.
That is: evolution increases the rate of power throughput, and entropy generation, in the environment. As life forms (and systems) vary randomly and are subject to selective pressure (Darwin's principle of evolution in a nutshell), the forms which can maximize power throughput thrive over those which cannot. So not only does life degrade resources, but it seeks to do so at the greatest rate possible.
That's a bit of a doozy, more to come.
So now we've got:
Life is a dissipative process, it creates structure to extract negative entropy from the environment.
Life works by exploiting available entropy gradients.
Life evolves through random variation and a selection pressure to maximize power throughput.
So, human's ancestors couldn't change the environment?
Well ... one human predecessor, if not a direct ancestor, were the cyanobacteria which appeared about 2.5 billion years ago. After about 200 million years, they created the first great atmospheric pollution crisis. Their metabolic waste product, oxygen, was starting to accumulate in the atmosphere, eventually precipitating what's known as the Great Oxygenation Event, during which atmospheric oxygen increased from roughly zero to first about 5%, then as high as 20-35%, before settling to the 20% value we know today.
The results were profound.
First off, the cyanobacteria couldn't tolerate living in their own waste product. They had an anaerobic -- oxygen-free -- metabolism, and were obligate anaerobes, meaning oxygen was not merely useless but toxic to them. They largely died off (though some remain in isolated environments) or were out-competed by subsequent organisms which could maintain an aerobic metabolism -- which, by the way, is vastly more efficient than an anerobic one. Yeah: it maximizes power flow.
Anaerobic organisms today typically operate at about 150 kilojoules (kJ) per mole in fermentation of sugar. That's about 5% of the rate of an aerobic reaction -- so your aerobes have 20 times the metabolic capacity of anaerobes. Darwin-Lotka at work.
The theories pertaining to how and why oxygen accumulated so slowly at first vary -- chief is that bare iron weathering and oxidation consumed much of it -- but eventually levels rose. That weathering and oxidation, by the way, is the process humans are reversing, through the addition of energy, when they refine metal ores and oxides to produce free copper, iron, aluminum, and other metals. Re-winding an entropic clock spring which was wound billions of years ago.
One of the first results was to oxidize much of the free methane in the atmosphere, which you may recognize as a greenhouse gas. This triggered a climate catastrophe known as Snowball Earth -- think the ice world of Hoth -- in which much, and perhaps all of Earth was covered to kilometer depths in ice and glaciers, called the Huronian Glaciation, 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago. It is the earliest known ice age, and is thought to be the most severe and longest lasting. In addition to the oxygenation event, removal of greenhouse gasses, and possibly continental landmass distribution, the solar flux (Sun's brightness) was lower at the time -- as the Sun ages its rate of energy production actually increases gradually, which will eventually pose other problems (in about 800 million to 1.2 billion years).
A subsequent Snowball Earth event, the Marinoan glaciation, occurred about 650-635 million years ago, preceding the Cambrian Explosion in which a vast profligation of life-forms emerged, though its cause doesn't seem to be related to biological activity (continental alignment seems to have played a more important factor). Though it demonstrates that life and glaciation periods can have causality relationships pointing either way.
Two more major glaciation periods are thought to have occurred between the Huronian and Marinoan, the Sturtian, 720-660 Mya, and Kaigas, about 750 Mya. During each substantially the entire Earth was covered in ice sheets a kilometer thick.
By contrast, the most recent glaciation period (technically we're still in the Quaternary glaciation) affected largely just the Northern Hemisphere, and even then largely northern North America, Europe, and Asia.
The two points of which is that:
Life can, does, and has influenced the environment, profoundly, to the point of destroying itself in the process.
Those changes set the stage for life-forms to follow.
Humans and the Environment
OK, you say, but Dr. Morbius, that's ancient history.
Well, technically, it's ancient prehistory, but point taken.
Thing is: humans are life forms (though this is sometimes not immediately apparent), and as with all other life forms affect the environments in which they live.
Which includes numerous cases in which environmental changes -- exogenous or endogenous to human activity -- had profound impacts on humans themselves.
A good overview of this is Charles L. Redman's 2001 book, Human Impact on Ancient Environments
From the blurb:
By discussing archaeological case studies from around the world -- from the deforestation of the Mayan lowlands to soil erosion in ancient Greece to the almost total depletion of resources on Easter Island -- Redman reveals the long-range coevolution of culture and environment and clearly shows the impact that ancient peoples had on their world. These case studies focus on four themes: habitat transformation and animal extinctions, agricultural practices, urban growth, and the forces that accompany complex society. They show that humankind's commitment to agriculture has had cultural consequences that have conditioned our perception of the environment and reveal that societies before European contact did not necessarily live the utopian existences that have been popularly supposed.
Humans have left a trail of environmental destruction behind them throughout history. Among the reasons for the nomadic lifestyles of many early cultures (and some recent and present ones) is that nomads move their footprint. After depleting the resources of a given area, they relocate to new grounds, allowing the first to recover. Desertification, megafauna extinctions, deforestation, erosion, salinization, and other effects have occurred throughout the world when and where humans have entered new or inhabited existing ecosystems. North Africa, the Fertile Crescent, Greece, Rome, the Indus River Valley, Australia, the Americas, the Mayan, Inca, Aztec, Anasazi, and other new-world civilizations.
There've also be exogenous events, of course, and mixed-cause events. Among the more notable of these was the Late Bronze Age Collapse, 3300-1200 BCE. First thought to have been the result of climate change, it's now thought that social, cultural, and economic disruptions relating to the rise of ironworking also contributed. Following it came the rise of the classical Greek and Roman empires.
A letter from the last king of Ugarit, a Semitic state, named Ammurapi, to the king of Alasiya, makes clear just how dramatic and desperate the situation was:
My father, behold, the enemy's ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?...Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us._
The requested help never arrived, Ugarit was burned to the ground.
Other periods include the Younger Dryas period (10,800 - 9500 BCE) and Little Ice Age (~1500 - 1800 CE)
Don't Play The Blame Game
William R. Catton makes this point clear in the introduction to his book Overshoot:
_Homo sapiens_ has not been the first type of organism to experience this vise-tightening [of overcommitted resources and excessive pollution], nor even the first species to _inflict upon itself_ this kind of fate. Pre-human instances of this common phenomenon hold importan lessons for us, as we shall see. For mankind, as the pressure intensiies, ignorance of its most fundamental causes (and ignorance of even how common the phenomenon has been in nature) makes it easy to succumb to the temtation to vilify particular human groups an individuals....
While vilification often brings emotional gratification, it brings no solution to our _common_ plight. Indeed, it aggravates life's difficulties. Our common plight is not really due to villains. Too few of a troubled world's proliferating antagonists have known the concepts that would enable them to see the common roots of their own and their supposed adversaries' deprivations. Under pressure, people retreat from the mutual understanding mankind has so falteringly achieved. Pressure also makes us disinclined to comprehend the human relevance of nature's impersonal mechanisms. It behooves some who have borne the pressure only marginally to discern and discuss its nature, that all may stand some chance of abstaining from the plight-worsening actions to which pressure so easily tempts us...
There is no point to another morbid wringing of hands over mankind's alleged "greed" or immoral myopia. 
The point isn't that the present threats aren't severe
They are. The rates of atmospheric and climate change are unprecedented in at least the past 800,000 years, and quite likely over millions to hundreds of millions -- the immediate aftermath of the Chicxulub meteor impact which ended the reign of the dinosaurs (birds excepted) 66 million years ago being a notable exception.
But as Catton points out in the passage above, there's a crucial difference in understanding some moral failing with a fundamental and innate characteristic of biology. Howard Odum, quoted above, makes an interesting aside in his 1971 book, Environment, Power, and Society
Sometimes in half-seriousness we say that man may have been evolved by the system as a mechanism to get the fossil fuels and other minerals back into circulation. We hope he is pre-adapted for other roles after that.
That's pretty much my view, one arrived at years before finding Odum's words, though they themselves were written years earlier than that.
Humans are driven by biological, social, cultural, economic, and military dynamics to exploit resources. To that extent we're rather markedly like deep-sea scavenger communities chancing upon whalefall -- the carcasses of dead whales which sink to the ocean floor. These events represent a tremendous transfer of food energy and resources to a normally barren environment, and a substantial community rapidly coalesces around the carcass, stripping the skin, blubber, muscle, fats and oils, and eventually even the bones of the whale.
But when the carcass is gone, a process which can take up to 50 years, there's nothing left to sustain the population, and it must either find another carcass (thought to occur every 5-16 km in the Pacific off the coast of North America), or perish.
Humans' whalefall for the past 200 years or so has been the vast wealth of energy represented by fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil, and gas. It's a short-term resource though, and a one-time bounty. Over the long term humans' use of fossil fuels is predicted to look somewhat like this:
The image is derived from M. King Hubbert's 1956 paper, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels"
Each of the fossil fuels -- coal, oil, gas -- represents buried ancient sunshine, accumulated over perhaps 500 million years -- which from the history above is most of the period of advanced life on earth. Certainly for us, and quite possibly over the lifetime of the Earth. Coal in particular formed as plant matter, with recently developed tough fibers called lignin, died and were buried before decomposers evolved capable of breaking down and metabolizing the tissues. Humans, in this case, are playing the role of fungi and other decomposers which didn't exist at the time:
The large coal deposits of the Carboniferous primarily owe their existence to two factors. The first of these is the appearance of bark-bearing trees (and in particular the evolution of the bark fiber lignin). The second is the lower sea levels that occurred during the Carboniferous as compared to the Devonian period. This allowed for the development of extensive lowland swamps and forests in North America and Europe. Based on a genetic analysis of mushroom fungi, David Hibbett and colleagues proposed that large quantities of wood were buried during this period because animals and decomposing bacteria had not yet evolved that could effectively digest the tough lignin.
A new study -- which includes the first large-scale comparison of fungi that cause rot decay -- suggests that the evolution of a type of fungi known as white rot may have brought an end to a 60-million-year-long period of coal deposition known as the Carboniferous period. Coal deposits that accumulated during the Carboniferous, which ended about 300 million years ago, have historically fueled about 50 percent of U.S. electric power generation.
In this case, the "coal battery" is one that can only be charged once in the history of the planet. At the very least it would take tens of millions of years to recharge, and other geological and astronomical events will likely make Earth uninhabitable within this time -- 800 to 1.2 billion years.
What separates us from our remote ancestors isn't some innate change in affinity or respect for nature, but a hugely expanded capacity to impose our will upon it
Coal, oil, and gas, once we'd worked out how to extract them and transport them effectively (a process which itself involved significant utilization of them) provided, at a low direct cost to humans, an immense energy wealth. That in turn fed a tremendous growth in population (from less than 1 billion in 1800 to 7.1 billion today), in per-capita resource consumption (by 10-20 fold in advanced nations), and in per-capita pollution and effluent production. All accompanied by a tremendous increases in the complexity of human society, economics, industry, and politics.
And if one group doesn't take advantage of the resources, another almost certainly will. That issue alone has been a major sticking point in climate talks, particularly for China and India, who ask why it is that the US, Europe, Australia, and Japan should have grown wealthy through carbon emissions while they cannot. Though as the negative consequences of massive fuel consumption become more clear, and China's unbelievable economic boom has absolutely been accompanied by a tremendous increase in fossil fuel use, they've started to revise that view somewhat.
The point though is that you cannot simply point a finger to a moral failing or bad people. It's not the US, or Europe, or China, or India. It's not, as a friend rants on about, the carniggers, though yes, private fossil-fuel powered transportation used to travel tens of miles daily is not in the least sustainable, even for the only one in seven of people on Earth who own cars, let alone the other 85% of the population (many of whom would very much like to have cars).
Most of these people are simply trying to live their lives: to get to work, buy groceries, raise a family. But there are enough humans on the planet that that itself is a problem.
We've got to come to terms with, to accept, to embrace, and to re-shape our expectations, based on limits.
There's an equation which describes the interaction of humans with the environment, called I=PAT.
I = impact
P = population
A = affluence (per-capita resource consumption)
T = technology
Among other things, it tells us that, other than what we can do through improvements in technology, human impacts are a matter of population and resource consumption. If you want to reduce impacts, you've got to reduce one, the other, or both of these. It's a trade off between "how many" and "how rich" (per person, on average).
The question of technology and its limits is something I don't want to get into here, though in general I side with those who feel it is limited in its capabilities. If, as noted, life, humans, economic, and industrial systems exploit existing entropic gradients, then technology can increase the efficiency of that process, but it cannot, of itself, create new entropic gradients. We cannot simply will new energy sources or mineral resources into being.
As to population, estimates vary, but several estimates put humans as requiring the resources of 4-5 Earths on a sustainable basis. Put another way, this would call for a reduction of population, affluence, or both, to 20-25% of present levels. Credible estimates of long-term sustainable industrial populations range from 500 million to 2 billion or so -- roughly what the global population was between 1600 and 1920. There is some range of disagreement on this.
Again: we've got to come to terms with, to accept, to embrace, and to re-shape our expectations, based on limits.
But that also means reducing net energy throughput, which means an overall reduction in energy, which means, looking above at dissipative systems, at reducing the overall capabilities of the system as a whole.
And that backwards movement is what makes transitioning to a sustainable path so difficult. Dennis Meadows, who's been studying this area for nearly fifty years, defines this sort of challenge as a hard problem -- in order to make things better, in the long term, things have to get worse for some, or all people, in the short term. In economics and game theory, researchers talk of "Pareto optimal" or "Nash equilibrium" solutions, in which all parties are made better off. That's not the case here.
This gets to the question of the adjacent possible from Stuart Kauffman, for which good descriptions are difficult to find, though this is a good one:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
Essentially, an adjacent possible is a near-and-attainable state.
Which raises the possibility of other alternatives, including both distant and unattainable states. One of the bigger risks humanity faces is that the sustainable state which we seek is not an adjacent possible one, but a non-adjacent, or improbable, state.
Which again is why fixating on morality isn't merely inaccurate but actively harmful: it focuses our attention on the wrong problem.
Which if I've got to wrap this all up, is a good way to do so:
Humans aren't behaving differently from "nature" or "biology" or other life-forms. We're just tapped into a temporary but tremendous enabling resource.
Put another way: the problem isn't that humans are evil. Which means that it's not enough to just be "not evil". We've to to actively seek out a sustainable path (or we'll have one imposed on us whether we like it or not). A paperclip maximizer would destroy the Universe..
We've got to accept limits. Including limits to both affluence and population, quite likely to levels well below both present global population and OECD median wealth.
There's a tremendous amount of wishful thinking presented on all sides of the limits / environment / resources debate. I see it from deniers of various stripes, as well as self-proclaimed Greens. There's short-term gain to be had in promoting fixes or cosmetic changes. Rearranging deck chairs can come with significant benefits by way of PR, government incentives, or even investor dollars. It won't keep the RMS Titanic afloat. I find the Kübler-Ross "stages of grief" model hugely useful in understanding various reactions.
The process will be painful for all parties involved. Addressing the equity issues may help in this. Stating that the consequences are "unacceptable" doesn't keep them from happening. If you'd polled the passengers and crew of the Titanic on the morning of 14 April 1912 as to whether or not the death of seven in ten of their number was acceptable, they'd doubtless have said "no". But by 2:30 a.m. the next morning, 68% of them did in fact perish. Reality is a bitch.
Top-down (global) and bottom-up (local) options are argued. Some mix of both may well apply. A third option is that external (imposed) consequences will force events if no conscious decisions are made.
If we're going to address the situation through conscious and deliberate action, it's going to require a tremendous amount of awareness of the environment and human's role and relationship to it. This is unprecedented in all history and biology. Where humans are unique is in being the first life form self-aware of its own impacts on its environment.
There's an arbitrariness to this all. There is no guarantee that humans, or at least our present civilization, will survive. As Howard Odum noted, we can only hope we're suited to another role after playing through our present one.
But what would you be if you didn't even try. You have to try!
h/t John Hummel @ G+
- For a real mind-bender, look up the viral load of the oceans. On a cellular basis, if you're a cell living in the ocean, you have a one in five chance of dying today. That is, the daily mortality of cells in the ocean is 20%.
Though I don't know for certain that the viruses either affect fish directly, or if fish poop is a vector, though it seems that it might well be the case.
Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87–90 no.24 (via Wikipedia)
Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society, 1971, p. 101.
Revised edition, 2007: http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780231128872-2
M. King Hubbert, "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels", Presented before the Spring Meeting of the Southern District Division of Production, American Petroleum Institute Plaza Hotel, San Antonio, Texas March 7-8-9, 1956.
See also: http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/
- Jeffrey S. Dukes, "Burning Buried Sunshine: Human consupmtion of ancient solar energy", 2003.
I recommend this paper (short and quite readable) very highly for those who want a general sense of just how vast present human energy consumption is, particularly with regard to total plant productivity: "net primary productivity" (NPP), also known as the photosynthetic ceiling. Human appropriation of NPP, or HANPP, is seen as one of several environmental limits to sustainable populations on Earth. Given that much present ag productivity is heavily reliant on nitrogen fertilizers (fossil-fuel based), phosphorus (in critically limited supply), pesticides (fossil-fuel based in part), and energy-intensive cultivation, transport, and processing, odds of sustaining present levels of food and other agricultural output over the long term are considered low by many experts.
"Study on Fungi Evolution Answers Questions About Ancient Coal Formation and May Help Advance Future Biofuels Production"
"Timeline of the Far Future", particularly failure of C4 photosynthesis in 800 million years, increased solar flux in 1 billion years, and carbon dioxide starvation in 1.3 billion years. We are living in the late afternoon of life on Earth. It is possible that more distant planets or moons might remain suitable for life.
Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms, chapter 1:
"World Vehicle Population Tops 1 Billion Units"
"Hierarchy of Failures in Problem Resolution"
Meadows' phrase appears in an address he made to the Smithsonian, "Dennis Meadows - Perspectives on the Limits of Growth: It is too late for sustainable development", at 42m22s
"There are easy problems and hard problems. Imagine two actions. For easy problems, the actions which actually solve the problem make it look better over the short term. The next evaluation is the next election, or your quarterly earnings report, the next time someone's going to evaluate what you're doing. The market and politics deals with these problems quite well. Unfortunately, in dealing with sustainability, we're not dealing with easy problems but with hard ones. Ones which require a sacrifice now in return for benefits later. The actions which solve those problems over the long term make things look worse in the short term. We need to increase the price of energy now in order for it to be lower later. We need to reduce certain types of economic activity now in order to slow climate change in order to have more flexibility for industrial activity later. Unfortunately, the next evaluation comes long before we can take credit for the fundamental solutions. And we're stuck in a system now where politics and the market systematically drive us over the cliff."
"Autonomous Agents and Adjacent Possible Theory (AAAPT) of Stuart Kauffman"
In the immortal words of Lyell Lovett: "Please, if it's not too late...Make it a cheeseburger!"