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Will biotech disconnect us from nature – or reconnect us? June 3, 2013

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Among certain segments of the population a common fear of biotechnology, and indeed a common fear of emerging technologies in general, is that it will reduce nature to just another commodity.  With the potential to control the very most inner workings of living organisms soon to be in our grasps, what will stop us from treating life in the same way we have historically treated most of the resources at our disposal?

This is not an argument without merit and more than enough words have been spent elsewhere on it.  However, I would like to invite you, for just a moment, to consider an alternative possibility.  What if, instead of separating us even further from our connections with the rest of the biosphere, biotechnology instead reminds us of our position as simply one species among many, merely one (albeit important) part of the greater fabric of life?

At first glance this probably sounds ludicrous and I don’t blame anyone who thinks that.  After all, the general trend of human thought throughout history has been one of placing ourselves higher and higher atop the pyramid of life.  From religious ideas of man made in the image of God to secular myths of a vast tree of life culminating in humanity, our position towards the rest of the world has not been one of humility.  Furthermore, technology has seemingly only ever exacerbated this problem, putting nature more and more under our control and reinforcing our self image as masters of the world with “dominion over all the beasts of the fields.”

How might biotechnology change this?  As a though experiment, let us think of a house.  As currently constructed, a house usually requires wood for its frame, metal for plumbing and electricity, a water supply to support both the human inhabitants and the inevitable pustule that marks the faces of most modern homes, the front lawn.  All of these things come from somewhere else.  When they break, they are replaced by parts that are also from somewhere.  Virtually nothing within a modern house actually originates in its immediate environment.  Instead, a modern house (indeed, a modern life style) requires a supply chain stretching in many cases thousands of miles to supply the necessary raw materials to build and sustain itself.

How might a house constructed through biotechnology be different.  Imagine for a moment a house grown from a seed (or multiple seeds, the specifics aren’t important).  What would it require?  If it were anything like a normal tree, it would need nutrients, a water supply and light.  Light for the most part is freely available everywhere.  Every second the earth is bombarded by free energy, far more than is currently used by the entirety of human civilization.  A house would require only the smallest portion of that to grow, and once grown an even smaller amount to sustain it’s own basal metabolism.  Nutrients could be acquired through composting of vegetable matter or, for the less squeamish among you, diluting human urine for use as fertilizer.  Depending on the location, water would be the most difficult resources to come across but there is hope.  Numerous plants have evolved novel mechanisms for dealing with arid conditions, mechanisms which could be adapted for our use.

All this is merely details.  The important thing to take away is that a biohouse would be reliant, not on the current monstrosity that is the global supply chain, but on the local ecosystem surrounding it.  It would require care and attention, as all living things do.  It would require an understanding of the place of the house, and the people living in it, with the wider world.  It could (and of course this is only a could) reconnect us to Gaia, to the greater whole of which we are a part.

How Will Transhumans View The Natural World? (Part 1) April 8, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Ethics, Transhumanism.
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(This is a three part series.  Come back for parts 2 and 3.)

Humans have, shall we say, a “complex” relationship with nature.  While we quite clearly depend on the services provided to us by the various biotic and abiotic forces at work in the world we tend to go about our business perfectly oblivious to that fact.  While we may enjoy having vibrant wilderness around us for aesthetic reasons protecting that wilderness usually takes a rather distant second (if that) on our list of priorities.  The past few decades have seen a huge shift in parts of our collective understanding of our relationship with the natural world but on the whole it seems most humans still view nature as a resource; something to be exploited.

How might transhumans and posthumans differ?  For posthumans the answer is we simply don’t know.  That may sound like a copout but the truth is predicting the actions of such beings would be like a bacterium predicting whether or not a human will have pancakes or waffles for breakfast.  The actions of transhumans on the other hand, who are not nearly so far removed from their human forebears, can be predicted or at least guessed at. It seems likely that transhuman opinions to the environment will fall into the same schools of thought that human opinions have.   Said current human views on the subject can be largely broken down into three viewpoints: anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric.

The anthropocentric view is easily the most common one found amongst the general populace.  Simply stated it means that the opinions and needs of humans are either given priority over those of other life or ecosystems or, more commonly, are the only ones considered.  This is also by far the oldest viewpoint.  Looking back through history one is hard pressed to find examples where the anthropocentric view was seriously critiqued, let alone threatened.  The natural world has been seen by governments as a resource with which to strengthen their nation and dominate their rivals, by corporations as a source of profit.

The anthrocentric view is enshrined in one form or another in all the major religions of the world.  The Abrahamic faiths hold the man is God’s highest creation whom the Lord tasked with ” dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth,” a line that can be interpreted as encouraging at best enlightened caretakership and at worst mass exploitation.  The older pagan faiths of Europe, though often holding certain natural features to be sacred, were no where near as nice to the environment as their modern neo-pagan pseudo-successors would have you believe.  Slash and burn agriculture and the kind of environmental degradation that comes with city building were common.  The Dharmic faiths, though often possessing a much kinder view, generally hold humans in a spiritually higher position compared to the rest of the biological world.  Even the Jains, whose practice of ahimsa puts many Western vegetarians to shame, view humans as inherently higher on the ladder of spiritual evolution.

While at first glance adherence to the anthropocentric view seems destined to wreak disaster (and often has) it does not inherently result in destruction and exploitation.  The spreading of environmentalism into the mainstream consciousness, and the inevitable transmutation of it’s fundamental values, have shown that a coherent ethos that values preservation of the natural world can be formed simply within the framework of the human centric view.  Apart from a few fringe leftovers most of the support for movements such as sustainable agriculture and green energy is driven less by a desire to protect endangered species or threatened ecosystems than it are the result of simple economic calculus.  From global warming to the Dust bowl it has become more and more apparent that a society which does not care for the health of it’s natural resources will be unable to care for it’s humans, either due to threats to public health and safety (e.g. increased risks of natural disasters, poisoned water supplies, etc.) or the eroding of sectors (e.g. agriculture) necessary for a strong economic base.  As such it should come as no surprise that this form of “ecosystem management”  (i.e. protect nature to protect people) is the dominant policy of the vast majority of environmentally focused government organizations and private businesses.

Will the anthropocentric school become the transhuman-centric school?  It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  Many of the notable transhuman technologies (intelligence enhancement, anti-aging, etc.) will likely at first be available only to a select, wealthy elite; the kind of people at the height of the power structures whom as already mentioned tend to favor an anthropocentric view.  While it is nice to think that increased intelligence will bring about increased morality there is scarce evidence to support that view.  The first transhumans to rise will (at least to some degree) be a reflection of the beings they evolved from, sharing at least some of the worldview of the originals.

An important question then becomes what place humans have in a transhuman-centric view of nature.  An examination of the outcomes of the anthropocentric view on other species is not encouraging.  In a worldview that considers only how nature benefits a single species all other species are subject to a cost/benefit analysis, an analysis that often has devastating consequences if the species is question is found wanting in benefits and high in cost.  Though other authors have raised the issue of transhumans actively seeking to destroy humanity that need neither be the outcome of a transhuman-centric view nor necessary for the destruction of our species by transhuman hands.  It is very possible that transhumans, without any malice towards us, may wipe us from the face of the earth simply by exploiting resources to a point beyond which humans cannot survive.   This is not out of the realm of possibility since by their very nature transhumans will likely require large amount of resources to sustain their functioning as things like enhanced intelligence, immortality and heightened physical abilities are all expensive traits to keep around.  Just to illustrate this point keep in mind that the human brain takes up a mere 3% or so of body weight but uses roughly 20% of the bodies energy needs.  Now imagine what sort of energy requirements a being with 10, 100, 1000 times the computing power of the human brain will require.  Now consider the costs of  this plus immortality, megascale engineering, ecosystems redesign and the other needs and wants of an entire population of transhumans.   Humans may in the end simply be the victim of transhuman apathy rather than malice.

Of course it is also possible that transhumans will look kindly upon us, perhaps out of fondness for their creators and closest relatives, and seek to keep us around.  The historical precedent for this is, once again, not encouraging.

Loss of Apex Predators Can Devastate Ecosystems: Implications for the Hedonistic Imperative July 30, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Transhumanism.
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One of the big debates in the field of ecology is whether or not ecosystems are regulated by bottom-up or top-down processes.  Bottom-up refers to elements at the bottom of the food chain that control the structure of the biotic community; such as the amount of nutrients in the environment determining the composition of the primary producers which in turn determine the composition of the herbivores and predators.  Top-down control is just the opposite, in which the organisms at the top of the food chain (i.e. the apex predators) control the structure of the rest of the ecosystem through the pressure they exert through predation.

The debate has been raging for decades now and it is now widely acknowledged that both types of regulation occur in nature.  As such debate has largely shifted to the question of which form predominates and under what circumstances either form will.  Personally, and I emphasize this is a personal opinion, I tend to think that bottom up processes largely control the structure of ecosystems (annual rise and fall of nutrient levels in marine systems, sunlight in almost all systems) with top down processes only becoming apparent in areas where bottom up limitations are largely negligible (areas where nutrients are abundant all year round).

Still decades of research have shown that in many systems the presence of an apex predator can have a drastic effect on the ecosystem in question.  In a recent study led by James Estes, who knows a thing or two about apex predators, a worldwide assessment of human induced trophic cascades attempts to bring the problem into focus.

According to first author James Estes, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, large animals were once ubiquitous across the globe, and they shaped the structure and dynamics of ecosystems. Their decline, largely caused by humans through hunting and habitat fragmentation, has had far-reaching and often surprising consequences, including changes in vegetation, wildfire frequency, infectious diseases, invasive species, water quality, and nutrient cycles.

The decline of apex consumers has been most pronounced among the big predators, such as wolves and lions on land, whales and sharks in the oceans, and large fish in freshwater ecosystems. But there have also been dramatic declines in populations of many large herbivores, such as elephants and bison. The loss of apex consumers from an ecosystem triggers an ecological phenomenon known as a “trophic cascade,” a chain of effects moving down through lower levels of the food chain.

Though this is interesting in it’s own right what really got me thinking is what implications this has for the Hedonistic Imperative.  I’m going to assume that anyone reading this has at least a basic working knowledge of what the Hedonistic Imperative is (if not, see the link to the right) and if you do then you probably already know where I’m going with this.  Apex predators will not, and cannot, exist in a world free from suffering.

What would this mean then?  Would a world without predators be a barren and lifeless one, or completely chaotic with ecosystems rising and falling like the tides?  Well, not necessarily.  A lot of the talk surrounding the discussion of apex predators gets bogged down in emotionally charged language that does little more than distort the issue.  It doesn’t help that apex species are almost exclusively “charismatic megafauna” (as one of my professors delights in calling them) and tend to attract attention and importance in the human psyche sometimes out of proportion with their actual role in the ecosystem.   But to get back to the emotionally charged language part all you need to do is look at some of the words used when describing the consequences of removing apex species.  Devastate.  Destroy.  Collapse.

Those are some pretty heavy words, but are they accurate?  Yes and no.  There’s no doubt that the loss of an apex species can drastically change the structure of an ecosystem and for many species the changes are negative.  However, that is not always the case.  Take arguably the most common example of a trophic cascade; the loss of sea otters in the eastern Pacific and the growth of “urchin barrens.”  In short, sea otters were hunted near to extinction and the loss of this species lead to a massive growth in sea urchin populations, of which the sea otter was a primary predator.  This explosive growth lead to a reduction in the size of kelp forests as urchins devoured everything in their path.  The result was areas stripped clean of kelp and colloquially known as urchin barrens.

This is a fairly well known story and one with a fair amount of evidence behind it, though the truth is a bit more complicated.  Whether or not an explosion of the urchin population results in a true, sustained barren seems to depend on a variety of local factors including temperature, seasonal changes in food quality and the presence of other predators.  In short, simply removing the top predators does not necessarily result in ecosystem collapse.

That right there is the point I’ve spent the last seven paragraphs or so laboriously trying to get to.  There are other ways to regulate ecosystems besides requiring predators to occasionally thin out the herbivore populations.  This, as stated above, has important implications for the Hedonistic Imperative as it provides us with the possibility of designing self-sustaining ecosystems without the need to release what are essentially serial killers into them.

The use of the word self-sustaining there is important.  An important critique of HI is that redesigning the world’s ecosystems will require a massive, centralized decision making and control body and constant monitoring and intervention to stay one step ahead of evolution.  Unfortunately this is likely to be true to a large degree.  As such it is important to look for any opportunity to take the burden off of ourselves so to speak and arrange for cruelty-free ecosystems to sustain themselves through natural processes.

How can we do that?  Well here it gets a little murky since any real solution is probably centuries away from us at our current level of development.  Still, even with our woefully inadequate understanding of how ecosystems function we can at least put forth a couple of ideas.

One way to control population sizes without the need for predators is to control population birth rates.  Obviously we won’t be able to go around and hand out condoms to the animals so organisms will have to be engineered in such a way as to ensure low growth rates and stable populations sizes.  An evolutionary solution (i.e. engineer individuals to produce low amount of sex cells or breed only occasionally) will likely be unsustainable in the long-term since mutants which overcome those limitations will likely be able to out compete their slow growing neighbors.  A better solution might be designing animals to be dependent on something within their environment that keeps their birth rates low.  Fruiting plants might be designed so that their fruit contains chemical compounds which inhibit sperm or egg production.  This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds and has tentatively been demonstrated in certain interactions between sea urchins and algae.  Even this would be vulnerable to evolutionary mutations so vigilance would still be required.

A similar method could be used with virus’ or bacteria that target an organisms reproductive system in the way described above.  Diseases actually would make a very effective means of population control due to the density-dependent nature of their effectiveness.  If the population drops below a certain threshold  the disease ceases to be as effective, due to the increased difficulty of finding a host, and the population is given a window to recover.  This advantage applies to all density-dependent checks on population growth (competition for mates and resources, predation, space limitation) but most of the rest would be very difficult to alter to ensure no suffering.  Diseases would also have the advantage of evolving with their victims to stay one step ahead them.  Of course by extension diseases present the obvious problem of mutating to attack organisms in some other way, one which may involve suffering and death.

Of course their are more fanciful, or perhaps I should say sci-fi, options as well.  Perhaps we could engineer a primitive, for lack of a better word, neural network a la Avatar that allows some sort of rudimentary communication between organisms, allowing the balance between food supply and population to be maintained.   That may be a little too speculative even for this article so I’ll leave it their for now.  The point is that a loss of predators from an ecosystem need not mean disaster and need not be an obstacle to the Hedonistic Imperative.  We can find ways around it using processes already present in the natural world.

New Solar Storage Technology Makes Debut July 12, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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While solar power has shown a lot of potential as a source of renewable energy the one major problem it has struggled to overcome is its intermittent nature.  Not only does this have the rather obvious problem of not providing electricity at night but it also hamstrings it in its ability to respond to changes in energy demand.  Now a company in Spain has demonstrated technology that may allow the solar industry to overcome that limitation.

The Gemasolar 19.9-MW Concentrated Solar Power system is a “power tower” plant, consisting of an array of 2,650 heliostats (mirrors) that aim solar radiation at the top of a 140-m (450-ft) central tower. The radiation heats molten salts that circulate inside the tower to temperatures of more than 500 °C (932 °F). The hot molten salts are then stored in tanks that are specially designed to maintain the high temperatures. This cutting-edge heat storage system enables the power plant to run steam turbines and generate electricity for up to 15 hours without any incoming solar radiation.

Is it perfect?  Of course not.  Facilities like this will take a large amount of space and will most likely be relegated to very rural areas.  This in turn will lead to problems of transporting the energy to urban areas of high usage, another issue that has dogged the renewable energy sector for quite awhile.  In addition there is still the issue of inclement weather (multiple cloudy days in a row) which will be particularly devastating to a system that relies on heat production.

All of these issues will likely relegate this kind of technology to a niche market.  It will require a climate that provides long periods of uninterrupted sun, large amounts of open space and well designed energy grid.  But what if those conditions are met, as they are in places like Spain, the southwest United States or (to a lesser extent) Northern Africa.  In the right market this kind of technology could be what pushes solar energy into the lead.

The fact that this will not be the panacea to the global energy problem but rather a small part of a larger energy portfolio is not a criticism.  Anyone who has seriously looked at the issue realizes that our future energy system will be comprised of many different technologies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  A combination of smart technology, a commitment to energy conservation and a societal shift towards lower population and less conspicuous consumption will be what takes us into the future.

Hedonistic Sustainability: Environmentalism, Aesthetics, And Human Happiness May 11, 2011

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Over at Big Think (a site I really need to start reading more often) there is an excellent article up about the integration of architecture, ecology and human happiness, a triad the author refers to as hedonistic sustainability.

What Hedonistic Sustainability does is transform the whole sustainability movement into something very youthful, dynamic and egalitarian. It proves that design and architecture can be economically profitable as well as environmentally sustainable. You no longer need to compromise when it comes to going green.

Now usually when I hear things like that last sentence my mental alarm bells start going off because I know someone is about to sell me something.  In this case however I cannot say enough good things about this.  It’s a sad fact but currently the only way most people are going to reduce their ecological footprint is if you make it fun and fashionable to do so.   On the one hand I can understand this point of view.  After all very few of us, least of all me, want to live like a monk for the rest of our lives but it is often infuriating to see the level of apathy in the general public towards the larger consequences of their actions.  That is why real efforts to integrate ecological sustainability and human happiness excite me so much.

I also think that this is something the environmental movement tends to forget and needs to be reminded ever every now and again.  It’s all well and good to talk about saving endangered species and it’s important to bring to light how our actions are threatening ecosystems across the world but we must never forget that human suffering matters as much as non-human suffering (usually I’m reminding people of the opposite).  A solution that involves a drastic reduction in our quality of life is no solution at all.

Now it’s important to point out that quality of life is not the same thing as prosperity.  Our current consumer driven economies are in no way sustainable even given the promises of renewable energy and greater efficiency.  Capitalism, responsible for so much of the good in our modern world that we take for granted, cannot continue as it is.  As we seek a solution to the environmental crises of our own making we must remember that the problems our system has created will likely prove unsolvable to that same system.  Even the efforts of hedonistic sustainability, wonderful step though it is, will not succeed unless there is an equal change in how both we and our society relate to the natural world.

This sounds like a massive, almost unachievable, undertaking.  I agree with the former but disagree strongly with the latter.  We have the technological solutions to many of the problems we are already facing and the ingenuity to discover solutions for the rest.  The primitivist idea that technology naturally results in environmental destruction is a false one.  Calls to abandon it will not solve anything and indeed will hold us back from the only thing that ever has solved anything.  This is not to deny that technology has never resulted in negative consequences, only that it’s use is inherently negative.  It is not technology that has failed us but we who have failed to use it properly.  Luckily, though we have stumbled a lot on the way, we may be approaching the point where our moral development begins to catch up with out scientific.

In the past few decades we have seen the beginnings of a change in how humanity views the world around us.  No longer putting ourselves above and away from the natural world we are coming to understand that we are a part of it as much as any other species.  This has been seen in the efforts to expand our moral sphere to other animals and to see ourselves as stewards of the earth rather than exploiters.  Now we are approaching a new step, seeing our very society not separate from the natural ecosystems but as an extension of them.  Or perhaps to but it better:

Taking a big picture view, hedonistic sustainability is what happens when you stop thinking about buildings as structures and start thinking about them as ecosystems. When buildings are part of ecosystems, they can be used to help create a closed loop for recycling energy, minimizing your environmental impact and creating positive side products like a higher quality of life. Sustainable cities start with sustainable systems.

Amen brother.

Future Farms: Indoor Greenhouses Could Feed The World April 11, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Stuff like this sends tingles up my spine.  A group of Dutch researchers are attempting to show the feasibility of growing crops indoors as a new method of feeding the world’s growing population.

Meeuws and three other Dutch bioengineers have taken the concept of a greenhouse a step further, growing vegetables, herbs and house plants in enclosed and regulated environments where even natural light is excluded.

In their research station, strawberries, yellow peppers, basil and banana plants take on an eerie pink glow under red and blue bulbs of Light-Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. Water trickles into the pans when needed and all excess is recycled, and the temperature is kept constant. Lights go on and off, simulating day and night, but according to the rhythm of the plant — which may be better at shorter cycles than 24 hours — rather than the rotation of the Earth.

As someone who has tried, with mixed success, to grow my own food hydroponically I always get excited when I see attempts to scale this technology up.  The potential of urban farms (or farmscrapers) to provide cheap, organic and local produce to city dwellers is inspiring, especially considering the inefficient and destructive nature of modern agriculture.

The big barrier right now to seeing the tech go mainstream is the start up costs of the equipment and the cost of providing light to the plants (required for anything other than a single layer greenhouse.)  But as mentioned in the article costs for LED’s are coming down and as they drop the feasibility of urban farms grows and grows.

To Stop Climate Change Scientists Propose Blocking Out The Sun (No, Really) April 9, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Science.
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Okay lets get a few things out of the way.  Yes, climate change is happening.  The average temperature of the earths atmosphere has been rising quite steadily for…well for as long as we’ve been measuring it.  Yes, we probably have something to do with it.  Atmospheric CO2 has been rising with remarkable steadiness is at least the 1950’s (I chose the 1950’s since that’s when the Keeling Curve measurements began) and that is almost certainly contributing.  Yes, we are now at the point where only a rather drastic restructuring of our society and economy would bring levels back down to where they need to be.

If we assume that these assumptions are correct then we are left with only one conclusion: we’re kind of screwed.  The chance of any substantial changes occurring either at the political or the local level at this point in the game are rather small.  It doesn’t take a psychologist to see that humans generally do not take action on matters with long term consequences until well after its too late.  This conclusion has driven many scientists and politicians to consider alternative solutions to our problem.  What if instead of changing our entire way of life we could come up with a simple technological fix to solve all our problems, thus deluding us into thinking we can continue our ultimately unsustainable lifestyle indefinitely?  Hence, geoengineering.

Geoengineering appeals to people on multiple levels.  As already stated it allows us to continue our current way of life.  It appeals to our vanity by proposing that our ingenuity and genius can overcome any problem.  There’s just one little problem; none of the proposed projects have a chance in hell of succeeding.

Its said that in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king.  Well in the kingdom of crazy geoengineering ideas one idea has come out ahead simply by being less crazy than all the others: blocking out the sun.  No, really.

“There’s the `slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it’s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective…

Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.

“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.

The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices – much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.

Now I want to stress that when it comes to geoengineering I hold no animosity towards the scientists investigating its efficacy or dangers.  This is research that needs to be done unless we want to charge blindly ahead once the danger has come and we have no other choice and good scientists like these people seem to be understand both the practical challenges and the limits of scientific certainty (hint: you are never, ever, EVER certain something will work.)

My problem is that all that scientific skepticism is lost on the public.  To hear this reported on in some circles you’d think it was out panacea, our magic bullet.  “Don’t worry about climate change, we’ll just dump some iron into the ocean and everything will be fine,” and that idea is being exploited by politicians who know damn well that the easiest way to not get elected is to ask people to suffer a little bit now in order to prevent suffering later (e.g. Jimmy Carter.)

Rather than being easy solutions every currently proposed project stands to be both ridiculously expensive, at least partly ineffective and potentially dangerous.  Just as an example lets take blocking out the sun.  While I don’t know the costs off the top of my head (I doubt anyone does) I can only imagine that seeding the stratosphere with aerosol particles would be a massive undertaking.  Keep in mind that since clouds tend to disperse we would need to be constantly reseeding them in order to maintain the cloud cover.  This process would need to be continued until we had managed to bring our CO2 emissions down to a safe level, something which would likely take decades at the least.

Next lets talk about effectiveness.  I’ll grant that increasing cloud cover  would probably lower global temperatures by a fair amount.  Unfortunately it would do nothing to the CO2 already present in the atmosphere.  Unless emissions were leveled off simultaneous will the seeding then as concentrations continue to rise we would need ever more and more cloud cover to counter the increasing effects.  Furthermore it would do absolutely nothing to counter the other big threat of climate change: ocean acidification.  As CO2 dissolves into the sea water it will naturally lower the pH of the world’s oceans with potentially devastating consequences for ocean life.

Lastly there are significant risks to injecting aerosol particles into our own atmosphere.  Let’s not forget that the widespread use of CFC’s, a type of aerosol released by many industries at one time, led directly to the weakening of the global ozone layer and the still-present holes in the layer above Antarctica and the Arctic.

Posts like this make me very angry at myself because when I finish them I always come across as a loom-smashing Luddite demanding we all return to the stone age.  Its not that I think these are idiotic ideas outright only that with a little effort and resources, certainly less than would be required to actually pull off one of these projects, we could largely avert the threat of climate change and render the entire field of geoengineering moot.  Whether we take the necessary steps or not remains to be seen and while I’ve never been optimistic about humanity’s ability to engage in long term planning I haven’t given up hope on us yet.

Oil Producing Bacteria: More Biofuel Hype April 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Oh for crying out loud.  Another group is publicizing research about using microorganisms to make petroleum.  This time its out of the University of Minnesota and funded by the Department of Energy.  This time the twist is that the team is using a two step process involving two types of bacteria to make the fuel.

The U of M team is using Synechococcus, a bacterium that fixes carbon dioxide in sunlight and converts CO2 to sugars. Next, they feed the sugars to Shewanella, a bacterium that produces hydrocarbons. This turns CO2, a greenhouse gas produced by combustion of fossil fuel petroleum, into hydrocarbons.

Okay, this is the third bacterial biofuel story I’ve commented on in the last two weeks so let me take this opportunity to summarize my position.  I am supportive of this kind of technology.  It’s an elegant answer to some of our current energy problem and could provide a sustainable source of fuel well after fossil fuels become to difficult to extract.  It’s an attempt to look beyond petroleum and utilize technology to meet our growing needs and for that I applaud it.

That being said it is not, I repeat NOT, a final solution.  Oil usage is only going to increase in the future, especially if techniques like this can make it cheaply, and as such our addiction to oil will only be strengthened not broken by this technology.  More importantly though is the fact that no one involved with this research seems to understand its implications for climate change.

“There is enormous interest in using carbon dioxide to make hydrocarbon fuels,” Wackett says. “CO2 is the major greenhouse gas mediating global climate change, so removing it from the atmosphere is good for the environment. It’s also free. And we can use the same infrastructure to process and transport this new hydrocarbon fuel that we use for fossil fuels.”

Let me be blunt.  This does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Every molecule taken up by these bacteria will be released right back as the fuel is burned.  At the very best if we managed to switch over all current oil use to this kind of production (not likely) we would stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a new, higher baseline.  The climate will continue to warm, the oceans will continue to acidify and we will continue having to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What this technology is, and what people need to realize it is, is a stopgap measure.  It will buy us time to come up with a real solution to our problem but is not a solution itself.  That solution needs to involve two things: transitioning to a type of energy that is completely divorced from the carbon cycle like wind, solar or nuclear and finding a way to take up atmospheric CO2 and hold it in an inorganic form that will not cycle through the environment.  Without fulfilling those criteria we will not solve our problem, only delay it.

Blue Petroleum: Bio-fuel From Algae March 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Boy this technology seems to be getting a lot of news lately.  A Spanish firm is the latest company attempting to grow petroleum from phytoplankton.

At a time when companies are redoubling their efforts to find alternative energy sources, the idea is to reproduce and speed up a process which has taken millions of years and which has led to the production of fossil fuels.

“We are trying to simulate the conditions which existed millions of years ago, when the phytoplankton was transformed into oil,” said engineer Eloy Chapuli. “In this way, we obtain oil that is the same as oil today.”

Though similar to other stories I’ve commented on there are important difference in what these researchers are trying to do.  Rather than bioengineering a species of algae to naturally produce fuel through their own photosynthetic process these guys are trying to recreate the Devonian period and make this oil magic strike twice.  Honestly I’m not sure what to think of this method.  Though the article is a little hazy on the details from what I remember the original conditions that led to oil formation involved massive amounts of decaying plant matter with high pressure and temperature.  If these researchers are trying to recreate that then it seems like a far more difficult and intensive method than other ones I’ve seen.

More importantly though it doesn’t address the issue I mentioned with other methods of biofuel production; the fact that this does nothing to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  The article touts the fact that the carbon used in the process is taken from emissions from a nearby cement factory and therefore attempts to flout it’s green credentials.  However what it doesn’t mention, and what every example of this technology shares, is the fact that every bit of carbon taken up will be released back into the atmosphere when the fuel is burned.

At best this kind of technology is a stopgap measure, a way to buy us a little more time, not a solution.  Even if we switched all fuel use in the world over to petroleum grown in this method the best result we could achieve is to stabilize Co2 and therefore temperature at near future conditions.  Carbon present in the atmosphere will still be there and will remain for thousands of years.  The only real solutions are to adapt to a new baseline (considering our lack of foresight this is probably the path we will take) or to find a way to return the carbon to an inorganic form and take it out of the carbon cycle permanently.  To do so would require putting into a sedimentary form like calcium carbonate and sequestering it in a place (like the ocean floor) where the chance of it returning would be slim.

To those wondering about some of the other proposed solutions let me deal with them now.  Carbon capture technology is a load of crock.  Disregarding the fact that it’s being heavily pushed by the coal industry (perform a simple Bayesian analysis and tell me if there is a likely conflict of interest) the fact remains that carbon stored will still be in a gaseous form.  Given the right conditions it would easily return to the atmosphere.

Storing the carbon in plant biomass is a better option but still not a solution.  This line of thinking has been behind a whole lot of experiments ranging from planting trees in previously cut forests to saturating the ocean with iron to encourage phytoplankton blooms.  Obviously some of the methods work better than others with the important goals being to store the carbon in a form that is inedible to animals (if they eat it they’ll respire is back into the atmosphere) and relatively permanent (for obvious reasons).  Large woody trees with lots of bark satisfy both of these conditions well and would make them ideal candidates while short lived and easily eaten things like phytoplankton do not.  However even the best candidates are little more than a stop gap since the carbon is still present in the cycle, albeit in a relatively stable state, and will continue to cycle through the environment.  Like biofuels all this method would do is buy us time.

What we need is a technology that both powers our society at levels of current consumption (we’ll never reduce consumption to the degrees we need) and works to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The “artificial leaf” I talked about a little while ago would seem to be the holy grail in this regard and I hope it shows the ability to scale up.

Scientists Develop First Practical Artificial Leaf March 28, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology, Science.
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This is all kinds of awesome.  Researchers have developed the first practical example of an artificial device capable of producing electricity through the process of photosynthesis.  In short and artificial leaf.

About the shape of a poker card but thinner, the device is fashioned from silicon, electronics and catalysts, substances that accelerate chemical reactions that otherwise would not occur, or would run slowly. Placed in a single gallon of water in a bright sunlight, the device could produce enough electricity to supply a house in a developing country with electricity for a day, Nocera said. It does so by splitting water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen.

Holy renewable energy Batman.  This is the holy grail of renewable energy research.  A device that enables us to power our society using the non-polluting and completely renewable energy of the sun AND it helps to bring down atmospheric concentrations of CO2.  This is so good that at first I wasn’t sure this wasn’t a prank or an early April Fools joke but it seems to be legitimate.

Now if you’ll allow me to come down from cloud 9 for a moment there are of course practical considerations that need to be addressed.  First and foremost is cost.  Though the article mentions that one of the things making this new “leaf” practical is the fact that it uses lower cost materials than previous models it still remains to be seen whether the technology can scale up and compete with more traditional fuel sources.

Secondly, and more important in my opinion, is the question of water.  The device splits water into it’s component parts (hydrogen and oxygen) and uses them to make energy.  This of course means that for the device to work it will need a steady and most likely substantial supply of water.  The problem is that the water crisis is the biggest environmental problem you’ve never heard of.  Humanity is already using more than half of all world runoff for our own purposes leaving very little for the rest of the natural world.  Adding another human use for water may push us over the edge in terms of our water consumption.

I’ll add one caveat to that.  The article didn’t mention if the water had to be fresh.  Terrestrial plants need to use fresh water for physiological reasons, primarily to maintain levels of salt concentrations in their tissues (I’m not going into the details, Google it if you’re interested).  However there doesn’t seem to be any reason apparent to me why these artificial leaves couldn’t use salt water for their purposes.  If that turns out to be the case then my water concern is largely moot since salt water is one thing this planet has plenty of.

Finally I will offer not so much a problem as an interesting thought experiment.  If this device works by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen then presumably at least some of that oxygen will be released into the atmosphere.  Done on a large enough scale, like if this technology takes over as our primary power source, it could conceivably alter the composition of the atmosphere enough to produce changes in the biosphere.  An greater abundance of oxygen could be beneficial to certain species of animal life allowing them to extract more oxygen with fewer breaths and therefore generate more energy at a lower cost to themselves.  Incidentally this is also predicted to happen to plants as CO2 concentrations rise.  Of course a greater abundance of oxygen could also lead to a greater risk of wildfires and could lead to oxygen toxicity in vulnerable environments.

Difficulties aside I am completely supportive of this kind of technology and look forward to seeing it break into the mainstream.