The Final Frontier (op-ed) [long]

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Oct 8, 1991, 5:53:11 PM10/8/91
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In article <14666...@igc.org>,<al...@igc.org> (Alan McGowen) writes:
>I used to wonder at the suspicion and even animosity with which
>many biologists and environmentalists view the space program. The
>feeling goes deeper than just funding rivalry, though there is
>certainly that. But it seemed obvious to me that there is no
>inherent scientific or technical conflict between a sustainable
>economy on the Earth, and certain kinds of development in space,
>particularly robotic development requiring a minimal human
>presence. Space colonization stuck me as in interesting long-
>range possibility, but I was never naive enough to believe that a
>mass exodus would occur in the near future. The history of the
>space program to date should serve to douse with cold water the
>idea of rapid expansion into space in a few generations. One
>generation ago humans walked on the moon, and every futurecaster
>was absolutely certain that there would be hundreds or thousands
>of people living in lunar colonies by the end of the century.
>Well, the end is nigh and it's clear that there won't be any
>people on the moon in 2000. No technical obstacle prevented it.
>But technical feasibility wasn't enough.

No, it wasn't. The problem is that the U.S. practically self-destructed. The
civil-rights movement of the sixties brought with it strife as the oppressed
and the privileged fought for their beliefs. Viet Nam became ... unpopular.
The economy began to falter. People got bored with moon shots. Paradigms
shifted. Then the seventies happened, which was even worse than the sixties.
No surprise that a space program founded in sensationalism atrophied.

>It's significant that most space boosters are not primarily
>interested in the expansion of scientific knowledge, i.e. in
>planetary science, but in the expansion of human presence in
>space as the main goal. Planetary scientists have repeatedly
>stressed that they would rather use funding for robotic missions
>than for projects like the space station. It's also significant
>that space boosters are even more outlandishly unrealistic in
>their expectations of what can be accomplished in the near future
>than other sorts of true believers, as is demonstrated abundantly
>in this group.

It's significant, but is it surprising? Most people aren't scientists; I might
get pretty excited about the dynamics of Neptune's atmosphere or the
possibility of Venusian tectonics or the structure of the heliopause, but even
I have to admit that it's pretty dry stuff. Space science takes a lot of math
and that's ever more intimidating to a larger and larger part of our society.
Manned exploration is different; exploration is a direct sensual experience--
you can feel it- you can do it, or other people can tell you about it and
describe their sensations and their feelings. What question do you think
astronauts are most often asked? "What was it *like*?"

>Something akin to religious conviction seems to be at work -- a
>belief in Cosmic Manifest Destiny. If you don't share the
>religion you are a technophobe to those who do, even if you make
>your living by developing new technology.

I agree that it's something of a religious conviction. Proponents of manned
space have strong feelings in this area. I think you err in putting words in
the mouths of an entire group.

>Cosmic Manifest Destiny is clearly an extension of the old-
>fashioned kind that conquered the US frontier. That kind of
>manifest destiny is a hydra with other heads: economic
>imperialism, or the doctrine that every particle of matter on
>Earth (and now off it as well) ought to become part of the human
>economy. And technological imperialism, the doctrine that we're
>not finished until we control absolutely everything. All these
>heads of the hydra regularly display their fangs in
>sci.environment. The heart of that hydra is anthropocentrism.

Is it so clearly an extension? In the U.S. frontier this expansion was
accomplished at the expense of the native Americans, through violence and
deception. I don't know if every particle of matter on Earth is part of the
human economy, however as it currently stands, the entire Earth's ecosystem
*is* under pressure from humanity. Is there anything morally or ecologically
wrong with expanding humanity's influence off planet?

>Evolutionary biology and ecology, on the other hand, are steeped
>in the post-anthropocentric worldview of Darwinism. This is the
>real source of the suspicion and animosity towards the space
>program. It's not that some technical requirement of space
>development forces us to treat the planet as disposable, or
>something to "escape" from -- it's that space appears to provide
>the Final Frontier for latter-day conquistadors.

I am unaware of any manned-space advocate who would suggest that the planet is
disposable. I am aware of a number who believe that expanding our sphere of
influence off planet might mitigate some of the problems associated with
industrial activity on the ground. While not a technical imperative in space
exploration, there may be a good reason for having a habitat off planet, for
example: there exist a class of asteroids known to intersect Earth's orbit. It
is possible that some day one will hit the Earth. Conquistador is an
emotionally loaded word at least occaisonally associated with the plundering
and destruction of a native culture. Perhaps Explorer would be a less
perjorative appellation.

>The deepest lesson of ecology is that we must learn that we are
>not central to life, but peripheral to it. This idea is
>terrifying to the conquistadors, who seem to want to replace the
>biosphere with something that can't survive without constant
>human tinkering. This is the real motivation behind their urgent
>cries for pie in the sky, or schemes for converting much of
>the land surface of the planet into a hydroponic garden:
>if anthropocentrism isn't true, we'll *make* it true!

This is most terrifying: our species could be wiped out. But space advocates
do not advocate replacing the bioshpere with something that can't survive
without human tinkering. They advocate creating alternative biosheres, to be
used in addition to Earth, not in place of it. They also tend to prefer a
bioshpere which won't need constant human tinkering, since tinkering is a
source of risk.

>It's childish, and taking such a path would probably ensure our
>extinction. But we aren't going to take it. Remember the real,
>vs. predicted, space program. We might have one space station
>next century. We might have one moon base. I doubt that we will
>have a base on Mars. Essentially none of the Earth's food or
>power will be produced in space, although there may be
>experiments along those lines.

Why are you casting aspersions? Why would the creation of a self supporting
space station, a closed-cycle moon base, a terraformed asteroid ensure the
extinction of life on Earth. I remember the predicted space program; its
predictions were based on assumptions which were later shown to be wrong: it
assumed vigorous governmental and public support. When that support was
withdrawn the work slowed considerably. [For excrutiatingly precise
explanations of the state of the space program , refer to sci.space].

>In the meantime the human population will peak at something like
>12 or 14 billion and then rapidly decline through famine and
>epidemics. The biosphere will be significantly weakened with
>50% or more of its diversity lost, and novel sorts of
>instabilities will appear, some of them unforeseen. Like forest
>dieback in Europe, whole ecosystems will collapse suddenly and
>unpredictably, and food production will plummet.

I tend to agree with this assesment.

>If there is still a technological civilization of some sort on
>this planet in the 22nd century it will be a minor miracle. If it
>has either the wherewithal or inclination for space development
>it will be a major miracle. Anything that will help to reduce
>human impacts on the planet over the next century will make that
>miracle a little more likely. Since we won't be offloading humans
>to space in that timeframe, space development won't help ensure
>its own future in that timeframe.

>If you want space development to be possible in future, work to
>stabilize the human population and economy now. Only in this way
>can we retain enough options for long enough to have a chance to
>get over the long and uneconomical early phase of space
>development.

I agree. Is this to be to the exclusion of simultaneously applying resources
to space? How much concentration of how many resources should be spent on
stabilizing the human population?

>But somehow I don't think that's the advice the conquistadors
>want to hear. There isn't enough glory in it. Maybe that
>conservation-biologist suspicion of the space program is founded
>on something after all.

Conquistadors again... Glory has little to do with it. Do you do what you do
because it is glorious? I don't. I enjoy my job, but I don't glory in it: I
don't do what I do so that people will praise my worth-- I just like what I do.
Might it possibly be the same for the people working on manned-space flight?

>And it *would* be better to use the money for the space station to
>conduct a species inventory of Amazonia.

Perhaps, but perhaps there's room for both. I'm certain that you and I could
agree on other oxen to gore, but not this one. I'm sure that a little thought
could yield a couple of dozen, any one of which would be more damaging to the
environment, consume more of the GNP, and whose elimination would more directly
benefit the species.

Regards,

O~~* ...and what does *THIS* button do. \ | /
- ~ ------------ Max Monningh ------------------------->zap<-
/ \ Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory / | \
( # ) SPAN/HEPnet/PHYSnet: 43198::Monningh
\ / 43011::Maxwell
- - Bitnet: Max...@FNALB.BITNET
~ Internet: Monn...@BASIL.FNAL.GOV

Alan McGowen

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Oct 10, 1991, 8:20:01 PM10/10/91
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Max Monningh writes:

>
> >Evolutionary biology and ecology, on the other hand, are steeped
> >in the post-anthropocentric worldview of Darwinism. This is the
> >real source of the suspicion and animosity towards the space
> >program. It's not that some technical requirement of space
> >development forces us to treat the planet as disposable, or
> >something to "escape" from -- it's that space appears to provide
> >the Final Frontier for latter-day conquistadors.
>
>I am unaware of any manned-space advocate who would suggest that the planet is
>disposable. I am aware of a number who believe that expanding our sphere of
>influence off planet might mitigate some of the problems associated with
>industrial activity on the ground. While not a technical imperative in space
>exploration, there may be a good reason for having a habitat off planet, for
>example: there exist a class of asteroids known to intersect Earth's orbit. It
>is possible that some day one will hit the Earth. Conquistador is an
>emotionally loaded word at least occaisonally associated with the plundering
>and destruction of a native culture. Perhaps Explorer would be a less
>perjorative appellation.

1) I'm not arguing that humans should never leave the Earth. I am arguing
that space colonization is not a realistic alternative to achieving a
sustainable economy/technology and population on the Earth in the next
1-2 centuries. It may be that this is obvious to manned space advocates
at FermiLab, but it doesn't seem to be obvious to some frequent posters
in this group. Perhaps it would be different if they all worked under a
reconstructed prairie :-).

2) Many in this group seem to think that "habitat" is a synonym for "surface
area". They are wrong. Building "habitats" that really are habitats within
ecosystems that can support the business of evolution for millions of years
involves a bit more than just blowing up a rock. It is inconceivable to me
that we could achieve this within the next century, since one would need to
run many such ecosystem experiments for very long periods of time in order
to develop confidence in such a technology. One poster in this group asserted
that "the ecoscience is almost here" to do this. I was the only person who
balked.

That suggests to me that the name of the group should be changed to
sci-fi.environment. This sort of thing displays a truly colossal ignorance
of biology, and the notion that we could depend upon the earliest attempts at
artificial ecosystems as an alternative to stabilizing our population gives
a new depth to the meaning of the word "irresponsible."

3) As I've said, I'm not arguing against space colonization on a realistic
time scale (which I think would be measured in millenia, not centuries).
But if I were, the argument about the Earth-crossing asteroids wouldn't
impress me because it would be easier to develop an unmanned technology
for deflecting asteroids than it will be to build new biospheres. Much
easier.

>
> >The deepest lesson of ecology is that we must learn that we are
> >not central to life, but peripheral to it. This idea is
> >terrifying to the conquistadors, who seem to want to replace the
> >biosphere with something that can't survive without constant
> >human tinkering. This is the real motivation behind their urgent
> >cries for pie in the sky, or schemes for converting much of
> >the land surface of the planet into a hydroponic garden:
>if anthropocentrism isn't true, we'll *make* it true!
>
>This is most terrifying: our species could be wiped out. But space advocates
>do not advocate replacing the bioshpere with something that can't survive
>without human tinkering. They advocate creating alternative biosheres, to be
>used in addition to Earth, not in place of it. They also tend to prefer a
>bioshpere which won't need constant human tinkering, since tinkering is a
>source of risk.

I withdraw the word conquistador for anyone who has such an attitude towards
risk. But anyone who thinks that space development will help us to prevent
a mass extinction in the next few centuries by raising endangered spacies
off planet is, if not a conquistador, at least a Don Quixote. However,
anyone who thinks that we should undertake policies which would accelerate
extinctions in order to accelerate space development is a true conquistador.
This includes the idea that there is no need to slow population growth,
because we can hang any excess on the end of a long rope.

[...]



> >If you want space development to be possible in future, work to
> >stabilize the human population and economy now. Only in this way
> >can we retain enough options for long enough to have a chance to
> >get over the long and uneconomical early phase of space
> >development.
>
>I agree. Is this to be to the exclusion of simultaneously applying resources
>to space?

I'm not in favor of shutting down the space program, if that's what you
think. We need communications satellites and remote sensing satellites.
We need to monitor what is happening to the Earth, and we need to be able
to talk to each other. [I think that much of the credit for recent reductions
in international tensions is ultimately due to satellites.] I would personally
like to see more money spent on planetary missions like Cassini, asteroid
flyby's etc. But we don't need to spend money now on projects aimed at
putting immense masses of material in orbit around the Earth, because we
don't *need* immense masses in orbit around the Earth. Beanstalks would
not be ladders to places where billions of people could live. They would
be ladders to places where billions of robots could live. And we don't
need billions of robots in orbit around the Earth just now, as a top
priority, thank you.

If you really think that having billions of people in space would be a
good thing, then let's begin by showing that a few hundred or thousand can
be supported for many decades, then a few tens or hundreds of thousands
for a couple of centuries, etc.

In reality there won't be an alternative way to do it. Building biospheres
is not for the impatient. Nor need we be in a hurry to begin. And building
new biospheres should certainly have a lower priority than preserving the
seed biosphere for the new ones: that is simple common sense.

>How much concentration of how many resources should be spent on
>stabilizing the human population?

A very tough question with a simple pragmatic answer. The amount that is
really needed is more than will ever be allocated. Therefore you can't
push for too much, except from a PR point of view.

A slightly less flip answer would be to point out that we first need to
cost out every method we can think of that would help to stablize the
human population (and economy). We probably haven't thought of them all
yet.

----------
Alan McGowen

Alan McGowen

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Oct 16, 1991, 1:20:22 PM10/16/91
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John McCarthy writes:

>To me the key point of Alan McGowen's position is embodied in

[..]
> At some point, marginal
> increases in productivity are consumed by the need to
> develop more ways to clean up. You're at the upper asymptote
> of the logistic curve: you are at the carrying capacity
> defined by general scarcity. Push the inputs above that and
> you will actually begin to lose total productivity.

Yes, this is the key point.

>We dispute precisely this point, not by general arguments about
>economics, but by concrete examples of technologies that are
>available or becoming available - as described in FAO reports,
>for example.

Since both McCarthy and Dietz are impressed with the FAO, I will devote
a (separate) long post to the subject. In the meantime I urge readers to
look at the March/April 1991 issue of _The Ecologist_ which is devoted to
the disasterous policies of the FAO (which the editors dub "the famine
machine") and the environmental impacts of its plans for the future.

[..]

>There is also experience. The fact that the productivity gains
>are real is shown by the declining fraction of their incomes that
>people are spending on basic foods. (By saying basic foods, I
>want to discount the part of the price of restaurant meals
>that goes into preparing and serving the food. This can get
>arbitrarily fancy as society gets richer, but it has nothing
>to do with agricultural productivity).

My arguments for the key point are these:

1) The economy grows in scale, but the ecosystem (upon which the
economy depends) does not. A collision is inevitable. The finitude
of the ecosystem places an upper limit on the amount of entropic
impact which the economy/technology can produce without degrading
the long-term carrying capacity of the ecosystem.

2) Although shifts in technology towards greater efficiency can
reduce the entropic costs of services, they can never eliminate
them. Any improvement of efficiency can be lost by increasing the
total size of the economy. The product of (size of economy)(impact
of a "unit" of technology) is the total entropic impact.

Thus when the productivity gains are discounted by their real entropic
costs (or by the cost of the technology changes needed to compensate for
those costs), there will be an optimum value as a function of the size of
the economy for any given technological level. We are already *far above*
that optimum value for our current technological level, as is shown by
the extinction rate (thousands of times above normal background): we
are spending the biological capital of the planet merely to stay even.
This is the proof that we are above the carrying capacity already.

Future "productivity gains" could thus at best ameliorate the current
situation. But more likely they will be used to support even greater
numbers of humans, and given past trends of total human impact (again,
measured by habitat disruption and extinction rate), will simply increase
the rate of biotic erosion.

As I pointed out to Dietz, the NPP (net primary productivity, i.e.
photosythenthic food production available to the next trophic level
above the primary producers) of the planet has been *decreasing* with time
as a result of human impacts. To point to rising human productivity
in the past is to point to something which has been predicated on an
*increasing* human portion of NPP. Again, collision is inevitable.

And the collision is *NOT IN THE FUTURE*. It is here, now, ongoing, visible
in the mass extinction crisis we are *already* perpetrating.

---------
Alan McGowen

Alan McGowen

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Oct 17, 1991, 5:32:43 PM10/17/91
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Nick Szabo writes:

>You may disagree with this because you have made a value judgement that
>we _should_ depend primarily on "what evolution has given us" (to update
>a tired old phrase). Because I value the advance of human civilization,
>I disagree with such a judgement, and neither viewpoint can be argued by
>invoking science -- except perhaps to note that science is a luxury of
>advanced human civilization.

I'm not the one who is confusing facts with values. Humans have been and
still are primarily dependent for our survival on what evolution has
produced. The recent trend to increase our numbers by using nonrenewable
resources has not altered that fact one iota. It very much remains to be
seen whether that practice has rendered us less or more dependent upon
the viscissitudes of nature.

The techological optimists are so convinced that we will shortly be
omnipotent that they often forget themselves and assert that we are
already outside of nature and that it is a value judgement that we are
not. However strong their faith in imminent apotheisis may be they should
recall that as yet we have feet -- and torsos and necks -- of clay. We are
still firmly dependent on the health of the biosphere for our survival.

My position on the human apotheisis is one of agnosticism. I do not know
that it will happen, neither do I know that it will not happen. I merely
point out that if it does not happen as soon as the "optimists" (I would
say "fanatics") believe it will, and we have severely damaged our
pre-deification biospheric life support in the confidence that the millenium
is at hand, our future might not be a coronation with the stars. It might be
to join the fossils in the rocks.

Consequently I advocate hedging our bets. By all means let us pursue
godhead, but at a reasonable, sustainable pace, from a secure and healthy
biospheric base camp. In the summit attempt on the infinite, the victory
will not go to the quick starters but to the long-enduring and well-provisioned
sustained performers.

------
Alan McGowen

"Whom the gods wish to destroy they first raise to a great height."

John McCarthy

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Oct 18, 1991, 8:41:26 AM10/18/91
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Nick Szabo writes:

------
Alan McGowen

In this posting, Alan McGowen has made a considerable concession to us
technological optimists, or so it seems to me. However, it's not quite
enough. Could we have just a little bit more?

What makes me nervous is the statement,

The techological optimists are so convinced that we will shortly be
omnipotent that they often forget themselves and assert that we are
already outside of nature and that it is a value judgement that we are
not. However strong their faith in imminent apotheisis may be they should
recall that as yet we have feet -- and torsos and necks -- of clay. We are
still firmly dependent on the health of the biosphere for our survival.

The trouble is that it puts the whole question on overly vague
grounds. What would it mean to be "omnipotent"? We are not arguing a
grandiose principle but talking about technology now available and
what we consider reasonable extrapolations from the technology now
available and the scientific knowledge we now have.

If the discussion is diverted to "godhead", it will become vague and
be entirely divorced from questions about whether nuclear or solar
energy is better, whether agricultural production can be increased
on as sustained basis or whether resources are being used up at a rate
that will not give time for shifts to less concentrated ores.

--
Self-righteousness has killed more people than smoking.

John McCarthy, Computer Science Department, Stanford, CA 94305

Paul Dietz

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Oct 18, 1991, 9:53:11 PM10/18/91
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In article <19...@aupair.cs.athabascau.ca> lo...@cs.athabascau.ca (Louis Schmittroth) writes:

>steadily decreased, tilth is worse. Phosphorous has decreased. But you say
>that can be bought in. For how long, and at what cost in energy?

A review article in Science in the mid-80s examined the long term
outlook for non-energy minerals, including phosphorus. For that
element, known and extended (somewhat lower grade) ores should last
for several centuries, even with continued growth in demand.
Beyond that, even lower grade ores would be required. There's
plenty of time for future generations to develop these resources,
and/or to improve the recycling of the element back from waste streams.

Phosphorus is not a terrifically rare element; it is (if I recall
correctly) about the 11th most abundant element in the crust.
Phosphate is not the energy intensive fertilizer; nitrogen is.
Phosphate deposits are often rich in uranium. If fully used, this
uranium would make the energy cost of mining the phosphate negative.

Mining phosphate does create pollution (for example, large amounts
of gypsum is produced from sulfuric acid treatment of apatite,
heavy metals, including radium, are also mobilized).

Paul F. Dietz
di...@cs.rochester.edu

Louis Schmittroth

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Oct 18, 1991, 9:00:32 PM10/18/91
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I have farmed here in Northern Alberta for the past 19 years. This is one
of the regions that is often sited by "technological optimists" as an area
for expansion because there is "arable" land still available. What isn't
said is that a lot of the land here is already marginal from being used to
grow and export from the region. To be specific: the organic content has

steadily decreased, tilth is worse. Phosphorous has decreased. But you say
that can be bought in. For how long, and at what cost in energy? It has been
a long time since an earthworm showed itself in my fields after years of
chemical fertilizer (inputs in techno-speak). When I see the predictions
of vastly increased food output, I think of vast predictions based on
half-vast foundations.

Louis Schmittroth

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Oct 19, 1991, 12:27:40 PM10/19/91
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In article <1991Oct19.0...@cs.rochester.edu>, di...@cs.rochester.edu (Paul Dietz) writes:
> In article <19...@aupair.cs.athabascau.ca> lo...@cs.athabascau.ca (Louis Schmittroth) writes:
>
> >steadily decreased, tilth is worse. Phosphorous has decreased. But you say
> >that can be bought in. For how long, and at what cost in energy?
[deletions]
> Phosphorus is not a terrifically rare element; it is (if I recall
> correctly) about the 11th most abundant element in the crust.
> Phosphate is not the energy intensive fertilizer; nitrogen is.
> Phosphate deposits are often rich in uranium. If fully used, this

I am not so much worried that a supply of phosphate will be available
as I am at what the injection of chemical fertilizers are doing, and have
done, to the natural processes in my soil. For example much of the soil
in this region cannot grow grain crops for more than two years in succession
without a rotation into clover. Nitrogen I can supply naturally, mostly
from clover, and animal manures. What I would like to see is more research
in techniques to convert the phosporus which is locked in mineral form in
the soil to forms available to plants. The phosporus is there. There is
no reason to mine it somewhere, transport it thousands of kilometers and
inject it here. Do you know of any way I can do that? When I ask the
District Agriculturalist (County Agent in Ameri-speak) he gives me a blank
stare.

You see that farming is not a "way of life" it is "agri-business." The
concern is not for the natural ecosystems involved in producing food, only
the bottom line of the supplier of chemicals, machinery, fuel, ...

Nick Szabo

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Oct 21, 1991, 1:51:26 AM10/21/91
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In article <4091...@hpindda.cup.hp.com> al...@hpindda.cup.hp.com (Alan McGowen) writes:

>1) The economy grows in scale, but the ecosystem (upon which the
>economy depends) does not. A collision is inevitable.

The ecosystem _can_ grow in scale. Farms are a good example of how we
can do this partially. Biosphere 2 is an example of how we can do it
completely. Aritficial reefs, space colonization, and many other
technologies will become available to expand ecosystems. Artificial
reefs alone could more than triple the ecosystem capacity of Earth.

Furthermore, the _impact_ of the economy does not grow in scale.
There is just as much ecosystem capacity now as there was 30,000 years
ago, despite the human economy having grown by over a factor of
100,000. A collision will not occur, because (a) the capacity of the
current ecosystem, in factors important to human civilization, is far
greater than we need with our current growth function through the next
century, and (b) we continue to develop new technologies to sever the
bonds of ecological dependency.


>2) Although shifts in technology towards greater efficiency can
>reduce the entropic costs of services, they can never eliminate
>them. Any improvement of efficiency can be lost by increasing the
>total size of the economy. The product of (size of economy)(impact
>of a "unit" of technology) is the total entropic impact.

So what? It is perfectly reasonable that we can grow the economy by a
factor of 10 while decreasing dependency and impact per dollar by a
factor of 20. There is no need to "eliminate" "entropic effects".


>We are already *far above*
>that optimum value for our current technological level, as is shown by
>the extinction rate (thousands of times above normal background):

Nonsense. The extinction rate, even if it got ten times worse, would
make no significant difference to the performance of the ecosystem wrt
our dependencies on it. Furthermore, with advanced technology we can
store genomes and reanimate extinct species, so that there is only a short
current window where species are truly becoming extinct. Let's
talk about the real remaining dependencies, such as the oxygen supply and
carbon dioxide levels, and a few minor factors. In these, we are orders of
magnitude below the current carrying capacity.

>we
>are spending the biological capital of the planet merely to stay even.

We aren't staying even. Human civilization is growing rapidly: in economy,
technological skill, and scientific understanding. It may be the case
that you _want_ human civlization to do no better than break even, but
wishing does not make it so.


--
sz...@techbook.COM ...!{tektronix!nosun,uunet}techbook!szabo
Public Access UNIX at (503) 644-8135 (1200/2400) Voice: +1 503 646-8257
Public Access User --- Not affiliated with TECHbooks

Daniel Mocsny

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Oct 21, 1991, 9:18:39 PM10/21/91
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In article <1991Oct21.0...@techbook.com> sz...@techbook.com (Nick Szabo) writes:
>The ecosystem _can_ grow in scale. Farms are a good example of how we
>can do this partially. Biosphere 2 is an example of how we can do it
>completely. Aritficial reefs, space colonization, and many other
>technologies will become available to expand ecosystems. Artificial
>reefs alone could more than triple the ecosystem capacity of Earth.

I'd like to see the figures on the last one. Ocean biomass today is
a scant 0.5% of land biomass (see Moore III, Berrien, _The Oceanic
Sink for Excess Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, in _Wastes in the Ocean_,
volume 4, Wiley). Nick's reefs would have to increase ocean productivity
by hundreds of times. This seems totally at odds with what every
elementary oceanography book says about the problems of biological
productivity in the oceans. (Which is: nitrate and phosphate nutrients
sink out of the photic zone.)

>Furthermore, the _impact_ of the economy does not grow in scale.

Sure it does. Human economic activities are impacting the environment
more today than they ever have, by a wide variety of measures.

Some industrial nations are de-materializing to some degree. As the
cost of information power declines relative to other inputs, we now
add more value to a given input of energy and material. In other words,
we are consuming ever larger rations of information. However, this
progress has so far been totally lost in the overall growth of
population and economy.

I agree with Nick that within, say, 100 years, people may have enough
information power that they may be able to live comfortably without
raping the planet, if they make up their minds to do so. But that
certainly is not the way things work today.

>There is just as much ecosystem capacity now as there was 30,000 years
>ago, despite the human economy having grown by over a factor of
>100,000.

This is trivially easy to disprove. Roads, buildings, surface mines,
farming erosion, and various forms of pollution have certainly removed
some parts of the Earth's surface from the productive ecosystem. I.e.,
any place that would be growing plants, but does not do so after
human activities, represents a loss of ecosystem capacity.

So far this loss has been down in the low percents. It has also been
countered by technologic inputs to farming (most notably, the
unsustainable use of fossil fuels). But unless something
arrests exponential human population growth, within a generation or
two humanity will certainly make a *serious* dent.

Within 20 or 40 years, tropical rain forests will be all but gone.
This will add negligible wealth to the human economy, but will certainly
wipe out a sizable fraction of ecosystem capacity.

> A collision will not occur, because (a) the capacity of the
>current ecosystem, in factors important to human civilization, is far
>greater than we need with our current growth function through the next
>century, and (b) we continue to develop new technologies to sever the
>bonds of ecological dependency.

The above are statements of faith, in the absence of proof. Nick, can
you even *list* the "factors important to human civilization"? Right
now, humanity seems to exist mostly on *LUCK*. We can't even answer
simple questions like "What is the fate of oil spilled in the oceans?",
or "What is the primary productivity of this estuary?" to anything like
a comfortable precision. We have only the vaguest qualitative notions
of what makes the world tick. We don't understand the weather, we
don't understand what happens when we change the composition of the
atmosphere, we don't understand how many fish we can safely catch,
we can't model ocean currents except to the coarsest resolution. We
can't even predict the tides at a given location on the shore, except
by an empirical Fourier analysis of past tidal records at that spot.

How many time bombs are lurking today? Which of the thousands of
chemicals we dump indiscriminantly into leaky landfills, rivers,
and oceans, is even now accumulating into some interesting problem
for us to confront in the future? Answer: past experience suggests
the answer is "more than a few".

As human population and industrial activity expand, the scale of
our mistakes becomes larger. Eventually, anthropogenic effects will
start to have serious global impact. For example, anthropogenic
energy use today is 4 to 5 orders of magnitude lower than natural
energy flows in the ecosphere. But another century of exponential
growth could see anthropogenic heat climbing into the low percents
of the global heat budget. We have no idea today what that will mean.
Will we figure this out in time to avoid unfortunate consequences?
Nobody knows.

Our ability to deal with problems tends to lag our ability to generate
problems. This seems to be a consistent feature of Murphy's Law, or
maybe it's the Second Law of Thermodynamics in a sinister guise.
Will this change? I don't know. I'm an optimist, so I think eventually
we may get on top of our information deficits.

However, until now, and for the foreseeable future, we will *CREATE*
the problems first, and then try to understand them. As long as we
have the benefit of a mostly natural world to act as a buffer, we
can survive collossal mistakes. But once we get done chopping down,
paving, digging, and engineering everything, there won't be much
left to absorb the errors.

>So what? It is perfectly reasonable that we can grow the economy by a
>factor of 10 while decreasing dependency and impact per dollar by a
>factor of 20. There is no need to "eliminate" "entropic effects".

It is perfectly conceivable, but I don't know what "reasonable" means.
We are presently in a race between the ignorant pursuit of wealth
and the knowledge that growing wealth brings. I am unable to pick the
winner.

The changes Nick describes are only "reasonable" if enough people
decide to make the necessary *SACRIFICES*. But who will want to pay
that price, except maybe a few alarmists?

What does Nick think, that he can run a fancy computer model, and
convince people to pay twice as much for ecologically friendly
products?

I am willing to bet that people won't care about a problem until it
BECOMES a serious problem. People generally understand the need for
hand rails after they step off the cliff, but by then it's too late.

>>We are already *far above*
>>that optimum value for our current technological level, as is shown by
>>the extinction rate (thousands of times above normal background):
>
>Nonsense. The extinction rate, even if it got ten times worse, would
>make no significant difference to the performance of the ecosystem wrt
>our dependencies on it.

That is a totally unsupported statement of faith, Nick. The scientists
who are closest to the work in the field consider the current extinction
rate to be a catastrophe of dire proportions. Of course, you were
responding to a statement of value (whatever the word "optimum"
expresses). But biologists, who are perhaps somewhat less ignorant
than you and I of what sustains life on Earth, are generally appalled at
what is going on right now. While we shouldn't mindlessly heed authority,
neither should we mindlessly ignore it.

> Furthermore, with advanced technology we can
>store genomes and reanimate extinct species, so that there is only a short
>current window where species are truly becoming extinct.

Zoos are not ecosystems. I think you underestimate the problems involved
with reanimating. The technology will be available perhaps within a
hundred years, but by then an enormous amount of biological information
will have been lost.

Certainly, the effect of technology has been overwhelmingly in the
directly of eliminating species diversity, not in recording and
preserving it. Who is going to pay for your "advanced technology"?
What will be the profit in it? We are already putting the torch to
rain forests with dozens, even hundreds of uncatalogued species.
Third-World farmers and developers do not have the money to purchase
"advanced technology" to preserve the species they are about to
wipe out, and neither are they interested in the necessary delays.

The extinction window is short, but that doesn't matter. Even a few
decades will suffice to sterilize vast repositories of species
diversity.

> Let's
>talk about the real remaining dependencies, such as the oxygen supply and
>carbon dioxide levels, and a few minor factors. In these, we are orders of
>magnitude below the current carrying capacity.

We are today virtually naked before a whole array of natural forces we
are barely beginning to comprehend. Even a slight change in weather
patterns might cause major problems for a lot of people. As human
populations and industrial activity increase, we may have larger effects
on systems we can safely be ignorant about today.

Again, I emphasize that growth will occur *BEFORE* we have the
understanding necessary to insure that it will be safe. Since there
isn't any way to stop this, I'm not really arguing against it. I'm
just pointing out that we really have no blinkin' idea what the
"real...dependencies" are, until we break a few of them and notice
that things aren't working correctly afterwards.

>We aren't staying even. Human civilization is growing rapidly: in economy,
>technological skill, and scientific understanding. It may be the case
>that you _want_ human civlization to do no better than break even, but
>wishing does not make it so.

I think that shooting the bearer of bad news contributes nothing to
the argument. What, will we also claim that the people who count
dead birds after an oil spill *want* the birds to die?

People who actually work on problems like cleaning up Superfund
sites or trying to figure out how to cope with oil spills are not
nearly so sanguine about things as Nick is. Mistakes are costly, and
very hard to repair after their full scope becomes apparent (and
this is *NEVER* in *advance* of the mistake). The more people and
industry we have, the more mistakes we will have. At some point, we
might start getting on top of things, information-wise, but it's
not obvious that this will happen "in time".


--
Daniel Mocsny
Internet: dmo...@minerva.che.uc.edu
Home box: dmo...@piglet.cincinnati.oh.us
or: minerva.che.uc.edu!piglet!dmocsny

Nick Szabo

unread,
Oct 23, 1991, 10:30:20 PM10/23/91
to

>>The ecosystem _can_ grow in scale... Biosphere 2 ...Aritficial reefs,

>>space colonization, and many other technologies will become available
>>to expand ecosystems. Artificial reefs alone could more than triple
>>the ecosystem capacity of Earth.

>I'd like to see the figures on the last one.

The geosynthetic layer system outlined in other articles increases biomass
per hectare for oceans to the same level as land (or more, since land isn't
anywhere close to being fully efficient either). If done over the entire
2/3 of Earth's surface area that is ocean, this effectively triples Earth's
biomass. Not that I think we will ever need to do this before space
colonization comes along, but it is an available option.


>>Furthermore, the _impact_ of the economy does not grow in scale.
>
>Sure it does. Human economic activities are impacting the environment
>more today than they ever have, by a wide variety of measures.

But not in scale. As John McCarthy has pointed out, many of the pollution
variables have _decreased_ in the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere over the last
10 years despite strong economic growth.


>...I agree with Nick that within, say, 100 years, people may have enough


>information power that they may be able to live comfortably without
>raping the planet, if they make up their minds to do so. But that
>certainly is not the way things work today.

Oops, here's another one of those nasty human evils, "raping". :-)


>>There is just as much ecosystem capacity now as there was 30,000 years
>>ago, despite the human economy having grown by over a factor of
>>100,000.
>
>This is trivially easy to disprove. Roads, buildings, surface mines,
>farming erosion, and various forms of pollution have certainly removed
>some parts of the Earth's surface from the productive ecosystem.

This is lost in the noise -- perhaps 2-3% in developed countries, not
more than 1% over the whole planet. Compared with a factor of 100,000
increase in the economy.


>> A collision will not occur, because (a) the capacity of the
>>current ecosystem, in factors important to human civilization, is far
>>greater than we need with our current growth function through the next
>>century, and (b) we continue to develop new technologies to sever the
>>bonds of ecological dependency.
>

>...can you even *list* the "factors important to human civilization"?

Oxygen and greenhouse gases are the most important ones, and probably
the only difficult ones wrt to declaring independence from Earth's
ecoystem. Greenhouse gases are a problem (rising sea levels et. al.) but
they won't put us anywhere near extinction. We can discuss technological
solutions to that problem, both preventative and curative, if you are
concerned about it. I guess that we have enough oxygen to support over
10 times the current population even with all the tropical rainforests
gone; if that is a severe error I would like to see numbers on that.
As I pointed out in a previous post, a 50% mass extinction would destroy
only 1% of alleles, so that such an event, while sad, would not have
a significant impact on human civilization. If you can think of any
other features of the ecosystem on which you feel civilization depends,
without the ability to technologically free ourselves from this
dependence, let's talk about that.


>We can't even answer
>simple questions like "What is the fate of oil spilled in the oceans?",

>...

So what? Engineering has never required perfect knowledge; it only
requires enough knowledge to lower risk to reasonable levels.
I'm not denying the value of learning such matters; I am denying the
necessity that such learning must be complete before we dare turn over a
stone.


>We have only the vaguest qualitative notions
>of what makes the world tick.

This is only the vaguest of qualitative statements. :-)


>How many time bombs are lurking today?

How many time bombs were lurking when Mesopotamia built the first
irrigation system, Rome the aqueducts and colisuems, Britain the Suez Canal,
etc. etc.? We can wring our hands for centuries and never gain
perfect knowledge of these matters, or we can get out there and get our
hands dirty like a real civilization.

(Perhaps the new version of ecocentric civilization should be called
"snivelization".... just kidding, lighten up.... :-)


>The changes Nick describes are only "reasonable" if enough people
>decide to make the necessary *SACRIFICES*. But who will want to pay
>that price, except maybe a few alarmists?

My megaproject examples are primarily put out to _answer_ the
alarmists. I don't think we will ever really need world-wide
aquaculture, or food produced from oil, but these and many other
capabilities stand between our civilization and the alleged "ecological
catastrophe" that Alan McGowen et. al. have been crying about.


>The scientists
>who are closest to the work in the field consider the current extinction
>rate to be a catastrophe of dire proportions.

That simply isn't so; the K-T boundary event among many others was far
worse. These particular scientists have a rather large bias, since they
usually want to study fragile-niche animals, such as non-human primates,
in their natural habitats. These scientific conditions hit the bit bucket
long before the species or alleles in question. This is a loss to civilation,
but not a major one.

For biodiversity the important number is the _allele_ extinction rate, not
the _species_ extinction rate. It is very doubtful that we will wipe out
more than 1-2% of unique alleles before all genomes are cataloged and stored
for reanimation. Please give me a chance to present the evidence before
you accuse me of basing my opinions on "faith".


>Zoos are not ecosystems. I think you underestimate the problems involved
>with reanimating. The technology will be available perhaps within a
>hundred years, but by then an enormous amount of biological information
>will have been lost.

Don't mix up storage (a solution avaible in the short term) with
reanimation (a solution available with the creation of space colonies
and/or the reopening of Earth habitat). We could close the window
of extinction within the next decade, given enough money and focused
effort (c. 100,000 biologists scouring earth's various ecosystems
would do the trick for 1 million species/year; this would cost c. $10
billion/year). This kind of effort is more valuable than efforts to
preserve vast stretches of scientifically pristine habitat for the sake
of ecologists and tourists.


>Certainly, the effect of technology has been overwhelmingly in the
>directly of eliminating species diversity, not in recording and
>preserving it.

We can't record much of anything without technology, and we can't
understand what we record very well without a very advanced civilization
that can afford the luxury of sending Darwins around the world in their
Beagles. The preservation technology we have, and we can use it if we get
around to deciding that is important. So far, ecologists have decided that
their studies are more important than preserving the genetic information.


>We are already putting the torch to
>rain forests with dozens, even hundreds of uncatalogued species.

If that is all, it is so trivial in terms of biodiversity as to
be meaningless. Are you sure you don't mean "millions"? That would
start to represent a few tenths of a percent drop in the number of
alleles on the planet.


>The extinction window is short, but that doesn't matter. Even a few

>decades will suffice to sterilize vast repositories of species...

This is pure hyperbole. The numbers tell us otherwise, as I have
described.


>What, will we also claim that the people who count
>dead birds after an oil spill *want* the birds to die?
>People who actually work on problems like cleaning up Superfund
>sites or trying to figure out how to cope with oil spills are not
>nearly so sanguine about things as Nick is.

Would I be guilty of undue cynicism to point out that most
people, from ecologists to lumberjacks to politicians, are biased
in favor of promoting the importance of their own jobs? I hate
to tell you, but civilization has been going along fine for thousands
of years, including hundreds of years in the polluting industrial age,
all the while being quite sanguine about things like dead birds and
Superfund cleanups. These studies and concerns are far more luxuries of
our modern wealth than they are necessities for the survival of our
civilization.

Daniel Mocsny

unread,
Oct 24, 1991, 2:51:57 PM10/24/91
to
In article <1991Oct24.0...@techbook.com> sz...@techbook.com (Nick Szabo) writes:
>The geosynthetic layer system outlined in other articles increases biomass
>per hectare for oceans to the same level as land (or more, since land isn't
>anywhere close to being fully efficient either). If done over the entire
>2/3 of Earth's surface area that is ocean, this effectively triples Earth's
>biomass. Not that I think we will ever need to do this before space
>colonization comes along, but it is an available option.

Every large-scale human activity in the past has had effects which the
builders did not anticipate in advance. Designing a given system is
much simpler than figuring out how it is going to affect everything.
The problems do not become apparent until after the project has gone
too far along to abandon.

This is not usually a serious problem as long as the anthropogenic
activity is on a smale scale relative to the entire natural biosphere.
But when athropogenic activity begins to amount to significant
fractions of the biosphere, then the effects will probably reach a
larger scale.

>>>Furthermore, the _impact_ of the economy does not grow in scale.
>>
>>Sure it does. Human economic activities are impacting the environment
>>more today than they ever have, by a wide variety of measures.
>
>But not in scale. As John McCarthy has pointed out, many of the pollution
>variables have _decreased_ in the U.S., Japan, and elsewhere over the last
>10 years despite strong economic growth.

And some have gotten worse, such as landfills, because they are
cumulative. We don't even know yet what all the pollution variables
are. To do that, we have to answer questions like "Where does this
chemical go?"

Also, much of the decrease you describe has been over the objections
of the people who were forced to pay for it. It's somewhat sneaky to
point to the environmental progress mandated on often balky
industrialists to justify the next massive increase in industrial
activity. In other words, if techno-optimists didn't have the
ecocentrists bitching and moaning every time they propose something
as minor as re-engineering the oceans, we probably wouldn't have a
planet to come home to.

>>...I agree with Nick that within, say, 100 years, people may have enough
>>information power that they may be able to live comfortably without
>>raping the planet, if they make up their minds to do so. But that
>>certainly is not the way things work today.
>
>Oops, here's another one of those nasty human evils, "raping". :-)

I believe you and I could both agree that some human activities would
constitute "raping the planet", if they were near enough to our
respective back yards. Most people don't build houses on top of
Superfund sites, if they are aware of them, to pick one example.

>My megaproject examples are primarily put out to _answer_ the
>alarmists. I don't think we will ever really need world-wide
>aquaculture, or food produced from oil, but these and many other
>capabilities stand between our civilization and the alleged "ecological
>catastrophe" that Alan McGowen et. al. have been crying about.

This is an interesting way to answer the alarmist: offer more of the
thing which alarms him. "Oh, you're afraid of snakes? Here, if you're
worried about snakes, I have this anaconda in my bedroom; I'll fetch
her for you." :-)

The rub, which you seem to ignore, is that your answers
are patches to problems created by previous patches to previous
problems, etc. Since you are not yet able to predict the exact problems
your patches are going to create, presumably Nick Szabo III will be
promoting even more elaborate patches in the future. Not that this is
wrong; humans need to stay busy, of course.

The "alarmists" are questioning how long this game of "oops-and-fix"
can go on. The "oopses" keep getting larger with respect to the
size of the system which nobody understands yet. Maybe there will be
one "oops" too many someday. By stabilizing populations and moving
towards sustainable technology, we might buy some time to play
"what-if" a little longer before the next big "oops".

>That simply isn't so; the K-T boundary event among many others was far
>worse. These particular scientists have a rather large bias, since they
>usually want to study fragile-niche animals, such as non-human primates,
>in their natural habitats. These scientific conditions hit the bit bucket
>long before the species or alleles in question. This is a loss to civilation,
>but not a major one.

I think that is for civilization to decide, if it will ever be able to
do so. The civilization which destroys the resource decides this for
all future civilizations. That's rather cheeky, I think.

>For biodiversity the important number is the _allele_ extinction rate, not
>the _species_ extinction rate. It is very doubtful that we will wipe out
>more than 1-2% of unique alleles before all genomes are cataloged and stored
>for reanimation. Please give me a chance to present the evidence before
>you accuse me of basing my opinions on "faith".

The question of whether anything important is being lost still hinges
on faith, I believe [wordplay intended]. If species become extinct
before we discover them, then we will not reconstruct their pattern of
alleles except by accident.

If someone smashes your house, you might very well experience a loss
even if you still have at least one of every type of brick and board.
Your house is more than its components.

I think it's quite fair to say that neither you nor I know *exactly*
what we are losing in the current extinction catastrophe. We will always
preserve the building blocks at some level (for example, we won't lose
all the atoms), but we are definitely losing lots of information of
value we don't understand right now.

>Don't mix up storage (a solution avaible in the short term) with
>reanimation (a solution available with the creation of space colonies
>and/or the reopening of Earth habitat). We could close the window
>of extinction within the next decade, given enough money and focused
>effort (c. 100,000 biologists scouring earth's various ecosystems
>would do the trick for 1 million species/year; this would cost c. $10
>billion/year). This kind of effort is more valuable than efforts to
>preserve vast stretches of scientifically pristine habitat for the sake
>of ecologists and tourists.

There is no way to predict the future value of the scientifically
pristine habitat. It's like an archeological dig. Archeologists have
a conflict between digging now, vs. waiting for improved techniques
which will allow them to extract more information from the site. Once
they dig, the site is no longer available. (Some of the first
archeologists destroyed irreplaceable treasures with their less-
than-methodical technique.)

>>We are already putting the torch to
>>rain forests with dozens, even hundreds of uncatalogued species.
>
>If that is all, it is so trivial in terms of biodiversity as to
>be meaningless. Are you sure you don't mean "millions"? That would
>start to represent a few tenths of a percent drop in the number of
>alleles on the planet.

I was vague. I meant that an individual farmer is capable of having
such an impact, in highly biodiverse areas. The total of course is
getting nearer to your number.

>>What, will we also claim that the people who count
>>dead birds after an oil spill *want* the birds to die?
>>People who actually work on problems like cleaning up Superfund
>>sites or trying to figure out how to cope with oil spills are not
>>nearly so sanguine about things as Nick is.
>
>Would I be guilty of undue cynicism to point out that most
>people, from ecologists to lumberjacks to politicians, are biased
>in favor of promoting the importance of their own jobs? I hate
>to tell you, but civilization has been going along fine for thousands
>of years, including hundreds of years in the polluting industrial age,
>all the while being quite sanguine about things like dead birds and
>Superfund cleanups.

Somehow, I don't get the idea you "hate" to tell me. :-)

But of course. The population has only recently gotten large enough to
create more than local problems. In a world with 10 million people,
humans could run absolutely wild and not make much of a dent. Now we
have lots more people, and lots of them pack far more wallop.

Also, in general "sanguinity" has been proportional to "ignorance".
Humans are an optimistic species, which is good. (A value judgement.)
Where a problem is not obvious, we assume one does not exist. That's
a heuristic which worked well during our formative years.

That's because during our formative years, the environment changed on
long time scales. Today, the world becomes a vastly different place
within *ONE* human lifetime.

> These studies and concerns are far more luxuries of
>our modern wealth than they are necessities for the survival of our
>civilization.

Until our civilization masses some (unknown) fraction of its buffer.
Then such studies may not be such a luxury. We might discover value
in being able to answer questions like, "What happens if we give
Nick Szabo the hundred trillion dollars?" :-)

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 24, 1991, 11:35:52 PM10/24/91
to
This is a comment on a small part of a post by Daniel Mocsny.


I think that is for civilization to decide, if it will ever
be able to do so. The civilization which destroys the
resource decides this for all future civilizations. That's
rather cheeky, I think.

Except possibly for genetic resources, I can't think of any way a a
civilization can destroy any resource for all future civilizations.

Doug Philips

unread,
Oct 25, 1991, 3:07:14 PM10/25/91
to
In article <JMC.91Oc...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU> j...@cs.Stanford.EDU writes:
>This is a comment on a small part of a post by Daniel Mocsny.
>
>
> I think that is for civilization to decide, if it will ever
> be able to do so. The civilization which destroys the
> resource decides this for all future civilizations. That's
> rather cheeky, I think.
>
>Except possibly for genetic resources, I can't think of any way a a
>civilization can destroy any resource for all future civilizations.

What evidence do you have that once all the oil is pumped out of the
ground that any new oil will be formed? And when all the uranium is used
up?

-Doug

Paul Dietz

unread,
Oct 25, 1991, 7:16:03 PM10/25/91
to

Consider what has happened with, say, copper. Ancient civilizations
mined ores orders of magnitude richer than today's. Yet, measured
in hours of wages we need to expend to buy a unit of copper, the metal
is 100 times cheaper than in the Roman Empire, and 1000 times cheaper
than in the days of Hammurabi.

If distant future civilizations need oil, they will access supplies
that are today too difficult to extract, or they will synthesize it,
or use superior, cheaper substitutes. As for uranium: the amount of
disseminated uranium in the earth's crust is, for all practical
purposes, unlimited. We've touched only the smallest fraction of it.

Paul F. Dietz
di...@cs.rochester.edu

Alan McGowen

unread,
Oct 24, 1991, 2:08:00 AM10/24/91
to

/* Written 6:18 pm Oct 21, 1991 by dmocsny in cdp:sci.environmen */
/* ---------- "Re: Ecological Dependency" ---------- */

I agree with most of what Daniel Mocsny writes, but have a few
comments.


>Roads, buildings, surface mines,
>farming erosion, and various forms of pollution have certainly removed

>some parts of the Earth's surface from the productive ecosystem. I.e.,
>any place that would be growing plants, but does not do so after
>human activities, represents a loss of ecosystem capacity.
>
>So far this loss has been down in the low percents.

Most of the loss of net primary productivity (NPP) has resulted
from the substitution of less productive ecosystems for more
productive ones: e.g. rainforest changed to pasture, temperate
forests and prairies to farms, farms to suburbs, grasslands to
deserts, wetlands drained and developed. This is where NPP goes.
Humans are now either directly using, diverting, or simply
eliminating some 40% of the terrestrial NPP. Only a few percent
of this is direct use. [Vitousek, P.M. et. al. 1986. Human
appropriation of the products of photosynthesis. BioSci. 36:368-
373.]

Thus it would be more accurate to say that our reduction of
ecosystem capacity has been in the low tens of percents. It is
also not "offset" by farming: this figure includes the
productivity of farms.

>>>We are already *far above*
>>>that optimum value for our current technological level, as is shown by
>>>the extinction rate (thousands of times above normal background):
>>
>>Nonsense. The extinction rate, even if it got ten times worse, would
>>make no significant difference to the performance of the ecosystem wrt
>>our dependencies on it.
>

>That is a totally unsupported statement of faith, Nick. The scientists


>who are closest to the work in the field consider the current extinction

>rate to be a catastrophe of dire proportions. Of course, you were
>responding to a statement of value (whatever the word "optimum"
>expresses).

Actually this wasn't intended as a statement of value. A
technological level is analogous to a set of predator functional
response curves, one for each exploited resource. [A functional
response curve is a coefficient in the Lotka-Volterra (LV)
predator-prey equations which determines the efficiency of
conversion of a prey item into more predator biomass. It includes
both behavioral and physiological components.] Leaving aside
solutions of the LV eqns which exhibit limit cycles or crashes,
the remaining stable solutions approach a limiting effective
carrying capacity. Changing the handling functions changes the
effective carrying capacity. [Interestingly, increasing the
efficiency of the predator, or increasing the number of prey
types tend to destabilize the system.]

I suppose it's a value judgment to prefer stable nonzero
solutions to crashes, but once you make that rather basic
judgment the only choice left -- the "optimum" -- is the
carrying capacity. Go above that and you degrade the resource
base so that the carrying capacity is reduced. But that is
exactly what we are doing by destroying biodiversity, and the
destruction is a direct result of our population pressure. Hence
my statement.

>> Furthermore, with advanced technology we can
>>store genomes and reanimate extinct species, so that there is only a short
>>current window where species are truly becoming extinct.
>

>Zoos are not ecosystems. I think you underestimate the problems involved
>with reanimating.

Indeed. Remember that the genetic diversity of *entire
populations* has to be stored and regenerated for this to work,
or the reintroduced species will not be viable. If insufficient
population diversity exists at the time of storage, the species
would be no more viable after reintroduction than it was before
storage. Remember too that reintroduction requires suitable
habitat. [And that does *not* mean the inside of an inflated
asteroid: it means all the other species and abiotic components
which the reintroduced species coevolved with, arranged pretty
much as it last found them. You have to put the entire Serengeti
ecosystem inside that asteroid if you want to put one population
of Waterbuck in it and have it thrive.]


>Again, I emphasize that growth will occur *BEFORE* we have the
>understanding necessary to insure that it will be safe. Since there
>isn't any way to stop this, I'm not really arguing against it.

If you mean that there isn't any way to have the knowledge before
the growth, I suggest that we try the experiment of stopping the
growth but continuing to expand our knowledge, and see what we
can learn. If you mean that it isn't possible to stop the growth,
I couldn't disagree more.

I might have agreed 10 years ago. 10 years ago if anyone had
written a novel describing the events which occurred between 1985
and what is coming to be called the second Russian Revolution in
1991 the author would have been laughed at by left, right and
center. We would all have declared such events contrary to
everything known about human nature: it would have seemed a
political fairy tale, unfit for adult consumption.

One result of the growth of "information power" is that ideas can
now spread *much* more quickly than they could in the past. That
makes it possible for social change to occur much more quickly.
One poster in this group accused "eco-freaks" (I think it was) of
believing that people are stupid. If people are stupid (and I
include ethical insensitivity as a species of stupidity) then we
are doomed. But I see increasing evidence that people are not
stupid, that they are capable of significant change for the
better.

When people understand the risks involved in the rapid growth
path, they will wisely reject it.

------
Alan McGowen


--

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 25, 1991, 5:53:35 PM10/25/91
to
In article <1991Oct25.1...@cs.cmu.edu> dw...@cs.cmu.edu (Doug Philips) writes:

-Doug
This is an elaboration of an answer Paul Dietz has already given
to Doug Philips.

1. I expect oil to run out shortly, just as whale oil ran out in
the middle of the last century. We are using oil primarily as a source
of energy, and it will be replaced by nuclear energy or conceivably
solar energy. For vehicles, nuclear and solar energy require an
intermediate energy storage medium. Most probably good enough batteries
will be developed to allow cars and trucks of present performance
and range. Another storage medium is hydrogen, which will also
work. Yet other possibilities exist.

2. Uranium in granite contains more energy per kilogram that pure coal.
Someone calculated that there is enough for six billion years. I don't
know whether this calculation took into account the fact that a
substantial fraction of the uranium will decay in that time.

3. Our descendants will be as little annoyed with us for having used
up the petroleum as we are with our ancestors for having run out of
whale oil.
--
There's not a woman in his book, the plot hinges on unkindness to
animals, and the black characters mostly drown by chapter 29.

Joel J. Hanes

unread,
Oct 25, 1991, 7:19:25 PM10/25/91
to
>> sz...@techbook.com (Nick Szabo) writes:
>>
>> There is just as much ecosystem capacity now as there was 30,000 years
>> ago, despite the human economy having grown by over a factor of
>> 100,000.

In article <1991Oct22.0...@piglet.cincinnati.oh.us> dmo...@piglet.CINCINNATI.OH.US (Daniel Mocsny) writes:
>
>This is trivially easy to disprove. Roads, buildings, surface mines,
>farming erosion, and various forms of pollution have certainly removed
>some parts of the Earth's surface from the productive ecosystem. I.e.,
>any place that would be growing plants, but does not do so after
>human activities, represents a loss of ecosystem capacity.

Nick's claim may in fact be accurate, but he may have chosen the
time interval to hide the destruction human economies have wrought
on the bioshpere.

30,000 years ago, much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered with
ice sheets a mile or more thick - almost all of Canada, for example,
and the northern tier of US plains states. Many areas to the south
of the ice sheets were so dry and windy that wind-blown dust soils
(loess) accumulated thickly in valleys and watered areas.

For a more interesting comparison, how about between 7K years ago
and the present? Some of the changes:

1. Intensive irrigation-based farming of Mesopotamia
has converted a fertile, marshy plain to a saline
semi-desert.

2. Goat-herding has converted most of the lands bordering
the Mediterranean from lush forests and grasslands
to sere and rocky terrrain with widely scattered trees
and little soil.

3. The "forest industries" of ancient Near Eastern cultures
deforested Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, which were
once famous for their cedars.

4. Overgrazing by cattle and sheep on the short-grass
prairie and Great Plains of North America have
destroyed the native plant community over vast areas.
These lands are now covered with sage and cheatgrass,
and can support far fewer grazers than before ranching.

5. Overgrazing of riparian corridors in the American
SouthWest has resulted in the *complete* loss of soil
and arability. Many places that had meadows and wooded
streambanks in 1800 AD are nothing but rocks and sand
today.

6. Overfishing has destroyed the once-rich fishery off
the west coast of South America.

7. Overfishing has destroyed the once-rich fishery
in Monterey Bay in California.

8. Overfishing has severely depleted the once-rich fishery
on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

9. Pollution and siltation have destroyed much of the
fishery of the Chesapeake Bay.

10. Pollution and siltation have destroyed most of the
fishery of the San Francisco Bay.

11. Dam building, mining, and logging have driven many
of the once-large US populations of Pacific salmon and
steelhead to near extinction.

12. Wetland drainage and tiling in North America have
reduced populations of migratory waterfowl to a small
fraction of their numbers in 1600 AD.

13. Habitat destruction and hunting drove the North American
passenger pigeon to extinction.

14. Wheat-growing and wetland drainage in Wisconsin produced
peat fires and soil exhaustion -- whole counties that
were once fertile have lost their peat soil, and are
left with nothing but sand -- formerly-rich croplands
are today good for little but scrub timber.

I maintain that every one of these is a severe and all-but-irreversible
loss of biological productivity. Human actions throughout history
have served to *reduce* the capacity of the planet to support humans,
not to increase it. I see no signs that this dismal pattern has
changed in the slightest, or that we've learned much.

-----

Joel Hanes

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 26, 1991, 2:39:04 AM10/26/91
to
To begin with, please dispense with the phony "we" as in not seeing
signs that "we've learned much". I think you will think that I
haven't learned much, but you don't really identify yourself enough
with me and others of the technological culture to justify the "we".

Joel Hanes's idyllic world of 7,000 years ago is surely a myth. I
pause for a 19th century quotation from a historian.


Those who compare the age on which their lot has fallen with
a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk
of degeneracy and decay: but no man who is correctly
informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or
desponding view of the present. - Lord Macaulay, History of
England, Purpose section.

I'm not quoting him as an authority on the present point at issue
but merely as an illustration that the belief in a golden age in
the past is one that arises again and again - presumably for the
same psychological reasons each time.

Now to some of the specific points.

123 - Some of the changed conditions in the Middle East are due
to humans. Others are now said to be due to climate fluctuations.
All of them can be reversed by sufficient technology once the
despots are gone. Mesopotamia is still quite fertile.

I don't know enough to argue about 4 and 5.

678 Since the life cycle of fish is a few years, and none of
the species are extinct, when overfishing occurs, it can be
reversed in a few yers. I suspect the fisheries in SF Bay
never amounted to much in terms of present consumption.

11 and 12 may be correct.

13 is probably correct. One could also imagine that the passenger
pigeons were wiped out by a disease imported from Europe just
as certain American indigenous human populations were wiped out
by diseases to which they were not immune.

14. I don't know about it. I do know that the decline in New
England farming is mainly due to competition from cheap Midwestern
food rather than inability to continue. This may be the main
problem in Wisconsin also. If an when we come to need the crops,
the land will turn out to be farmable after all.

Louis Schmittroth

unread,
Oct 26, 1991, 12:26:16 PM10/26/91
to
In article <bcdn02b...@JUTS.ccc.amdahl.com>, jj...@outs.ccc.amdahl.com (Joel J. Hanes) writes:
> >> sz...@techbook.com (Nick Szabo) writes:
> >> There is just as much ecosystem capacity now as there was 30,000 years
> >> ago, despite the human economy having grown by over a factor of
> >> 100,000.
> In article <1991Oct22.0...@piglet.cincinnati.oh.us> dmo...@piglet.CINCINNATI.OH.US (Daniel Mocsny) writes:
> >This is trivially easy to disprove. Roads, buildings, surface mines,
> >farming erosion, and various forms of pollution have certainly removed
> >some parts of the Earth's surface from the productive ecosystem. I.e.,
> >any place that would be growing plants, but does not do so after
> >human activities, represents a loss of ecosystem capacity.


> For a more interesting comparison, how about between 7K years ago
> and the present? Some of the changes:

[ List of 14 instances of loss of ecosystem capacity]

Perhaps this could be the start of a FAQ list for this group. I think
if we could get some participation from Europe we could add substantially
to the list.

The forests of central Europe are a good addition. I have been reading
(to hone up my German) a book from the Bavarian Government, "Bayerische
Forstlandschaften im Wandel der Zeit." Time after time the orginal
forests were destroyed by human activities: charcoal-making,
glass-making, potash production, grazing, and litter raking for
stalls. A horror story. Places that had functioning productive mixed
woods can now support only shrubs, or at best inferior trees such as
pines. In addition, starting in the 19th century diversified mixed
woods were replaced with monoculture tree farms usually of spruce or
pine. These "forests" are also much more prone to insect attack,
drought damage, and blowdown, and produce wood which is less
valuable that from a natural (of as they say in Bayern, "Naturnahe,
nearly natural) forest.

Now comes the attack on the boreal forest, a region with a short growing
season, poor soils, and no way of predicting what the effect of large
scale logging will be. If you think of the problem of constructing a
computer model to predict this, and try to get a past scenario to test
the model against, you come up empty handed. No the forest operations
in Scandinavia are in the temperate forest not the boreal. The best
we can do is look at what has happened in Northern Ontario, and even the
second rotation does not produce as well as the original.

Alan McGowen

unread,
Oct 27, 1991, 11:51:00 AM10/27/91
to

John McCarthy writes:

>678 Since the life cycle of fish is a few years, and none of
>the species are extinct, when overfishing occurs, it can be
>reversed in a few yers. I suspect the fisheries in SF Bay
>never amounted to much in terms of present consumption.

Then why haven't the sardines returned to Monterey Bay? It's been
rather more than "a few years" since they were fished out.

The overfishing destroyed the populations, changing the community
structure, apparently irreversibly.

Decimation and commercial extinction of fisheries and shellfish
production has been common all along the east coast of the US and
Canada. An exhaustive historical documentation of this process in
the Canadian Maritimes can be found in Farley Mowat's _Sea of
Slaughter_

[Also: could it be that Joel Hanes' "we" refered to something
larger than McCarthy's "we" can compass? The human race,
perhaps? Interesting what one can learn from studying usage of that
little word.]

-----
Alan McGowen

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 28, 1991, 12:27:12 PM10/28/91
to


John McCarthy writes:

As I recall from something I read many years ago, the failure of the
sardines to recover after restrictions were put on fishing led to the
conclusion that the original failure was due to something other than
overfishing. I don't recall whether there was a conjecture as to what
that was - maybe a change in ocean currents. Note that there is a
failure of the Peruvian sardine fishery with every occurrence of El
Nino. This is ascribed to a reduction of the upwelling of nutrient
rich water.

Farley Mowat is a journalist. He doesn't publish papers in refereed
journals, so he needn't substantiate what he says.

Doug Philips

unread,
Oct 28, 1991, 4:03:02 PM10/28/91
to
In article <JMC.91Oc...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU>
j...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU (John McCarthy) writes:

+In article <1991Oct25.1...@cs.cmu.edu>,
dw...@cs.cmu.edu (Doug Philips) writes:
+1. I expect oil to run out shortly, just as whale oil ran out in
+the middle of the last century.

Yes, but the point is, the oil will be gone. You don't dispute that.

+2. Uranium in granite contains more energy per kilogram that pure coal.
+Someone calculated that there is enough for six billion years. I don't
+know whether this calculation took into account the fact that a
+substantial fraction of the uranium will decay in that time.

I would be interested in seeing that calculation, as well as consideration
for waste disposal and the costs for extraction.

+3. Our descendants will be as little annoyed with us for having used
+up the petroleum as we are with our ancestors for having run out of
+whale oil.

Perhaps. They may be more annoyed at what using that oil does to the
environment, than we were. Even so, that assumes that we have already
thought of all the important and interesting uses for petroleum (or whale
oil for that matter).

-Doug
---
Preferred: d...@willett.pgh.pa.us Ok: {pitt,sei}!willett!dwp

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 28, 1991, 9:41:18 PM10/28/91
to

-Doug
---

2. I don't have the calculation. It was done at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory.

Oh well, I'll try. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the
abundance of uranium in the earth's crust is about 4 parts per
million, and there 10^-6 grams of uranium per liter of sea water.
According to the same article, one pound of uranium can yield the same
energy as 3 million pounds of coal. Uranium has a half life of only
4.5 billion years, so the people who calculated billions of years
adequacy of supply should have taken half life into account. These
calculations are based on using breeder reactors which use the whole
of the uranium and not just the U235 fraction. There is also thorium,
which can also be used in breeder reactors and which is about three
times as abundant as uranium.

The ocean seems to contain 6 10^20 liters, and this gives 6 10^14
grams of uranium or 6 10^8 tons which is equivalent to
1.8 10^15 tons of coal. I guess the world production of coal to
be about 3 billion tons per year, so the uranium in the sea corresponds
to a mere 600,000 years. You can do the crustal calculation yourself.
I suppose it depends on how deep you take the crust to extend. (It
is strongly believed that there is less uranium below the crust,
because otherwise the heat flow would be larger than it is thought
to be. I don't think the heat flow is uniform, and I don't think
it is known in the vicinity of the regions of sea floor spreading
where it might be large.)

No-one will seriously work on devising ways of getting uranium out
of ordinary rock as long as high grade ores are cheap. The costs
imposed by the second law of thermodynamics can be calculated, but
they are trivial.


3. As to what will annoy our descendants, judging from past performance
it is likely to be something we regard as trivial.

As to oil, it consists of carbon and hydrogen, and these don't
disappear from the planet when the oil is burned. Anyway, there is
plenty of hydrogen in water, and plenty of carbon in coal for the next
few thousand years. With an energy supply, anything made from oil or
natural gas can be made from coal and water.

Alan McGowen

unread,
Oct 29, 1991, 2:17:00 AM10/29/91
to

i
I wrote:

Then why haven't the sardines returned to Monterey Bay? It's been
rather more than "a few years" since they were fished out.

The overfishing destroyed the populations, changing the community
structure, apparently irreversibly.

John McCarthy wrote:

As I recall from something I read many years ago, the failure of the
sardines to recover after restrictions were put on fishing led to the
conclusion that the original failure was due to something other than
overfishing. I don't recall whether there was a conjecture as to what
that was - maybe a change in ocean currents. Note that there is a
failure of the Peruvian sardine fishery with every occurrence of El
Nino. This is ascribed to a reduction of the upwelling of nutrient
rich water.

I don't have references specific to Monterey Bay fisheries at
hand, but there is an immense amount of evidence that ecosystems
have a strong stochastic component in their development of climax
community structure. When stressed to the point of local
extinctions, there is no guarantee that they will later return to
the same species composition: instead, accidents of colonization
play an important role in the development of the final community
(of course, these accidents can only successfully introduce
species whose niche requirements are met). Thus irreversible
change of the composition of any ecosystem is always a probable
response to stress (unless all the lost species have nearby
reservoirs from which they can recolonize).

Many migratory animal populations (such as many species of fish)
are very picky about where they must spend a particular phase of
life, and if conditions change greatly in one of these locales,
the population can diminish or even become extinct. We can be
pretty sure that all the species of fish that were caught in the
vicinity of Monterey Bay spent a phase of their lives there.
It's certainly logically possible that they all suffered bad luck
independently at different places crucial to their life cycle.
But Occam's Razor would suggest that the point of common stress
was the likely culprit, and that point is Monterey Bay, and the
common stress was overfishing.

I wrote:

Decimation and commercial extinction of fisheries and shellfish
production has been common all along the east coast of the US and
Canada. An exhaustive historical documentation of this process in
the Canadian Maritimes can be found in Farley Mowat's _Sea of
Slaughter_

John McCarthy wrote:

Farley Mowat is a journalist. He doesn't publish papers in refereed
journals, so he needn't substantiate what he says.

As I recall, Alexander Solzhenitsn didn't publish in refereed
journals either. The sheer mass of material assembled by both
writers (in _Sea of Slaughter_ and _Gulag Archipelago_) is so
large that it is implausible it could all be fabrication.
Besides, there are other corroborative sources in both cases.

--
>There's not a woman in his book, the plot hinges on unkindness to
>animals, and the black characters mostly drown by chapter 29.

Call me Ishmail, Sam.

-----
Alan McGowen

Daniel Mocsny

unread,
Oct 29, 1991, 4:55:41 PM10/29/91
to
> I think that is for civilization to decide, if it will ever
> be able to do so. The civilization which destroys the
> resource decides this for all future civilizations. That's
> rather cheeky, I think.
>
>Except possibly for genetic resources, I can't think of any way a a
>civilization can destroy any resource for all future civilizations.

Your observation is correct if we restrict our thinking to the
First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of mass and energy).
Certainly, no matter how we dig things up and react them chemically,
a future generation will still have all the original atoms available.
Even with nuclear reactions, most of mass is conserved as protons
and neutrons.

However, the Second Law of Thermodynamics determines what the
thermodynamicist calls the *availability* of a particular resource,
i.e., its capacity to do *useful work*.

Nature has been very kind in melting rocks down and fractionating
their components out into nice, convenient ores for us. Human mining
activities dig up these concentrated ores, and refine them into metals.
Then human consumers wear out metal-containing products, and scatter
them all over the surface of the planet.

The metal resource is not being "lost" in the First Law sense;
essentially all the original metal is still on the planet (or at least,
near wherever people are). But most of the *availability* of the
original resource has been destroyed. A future generation which wants
to re-use our waste will have to work much harder to un-do all of our
scattering-out. In scientific terms, human activities have increased
the "entropy" of the resource, consuming some of its availability.

Daniel Mocsny

unread,
Oct 29, 1991, 5:23:54 PM10/29/91
to
In article <JMC.91Oc...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU> j...@cs.Stanford.EDU writes:
>3. Our descendants will be as little annoyed with us for having used
>up the petroleum as we are with our ancestors for having run out of
>whale oil.

Since we won't be alive to find out, I guess it's a safe bet.

However, I am quite certain the slaughter of the whales would have
a lower approval rating today than it enjoyed while it was going on.

Similarly, it used to be that most civilized humans tolerated
slavery, and believed women should not vote or work outside the
home, etc. I think it's a fair bet that future generations will
regard themselves as being more enlightened than we are. I wouldn't
be surprised to hear of parents telling their children how we used
to spend hundreds of watts to light a room, or how we drove
3000 kg vehicles to pick up a single newspaper printed on a dead
tree, and so on. That is, if the terms "parents" and "children"
preserve their same meaning.

Daniel Mocsny

unread,
Oct 29, 1991, 7:04:59 PM10/29/91
to
In article <14666...@igc.org> al...@igc.org (Alan McGowen) writes:
>Then why haven't the sardines returned to Monterey Bay? It's been
>rather more than "a few years" since they were fished out.

>The overfishing destroyed the populations, changing the community
>structure, apparently irreversibly.

I would actually suspect pollution rather than overfishing. Marine
communities are apparently more mobile, less biodiverse, and more
robust than terrestrial communities. It's a lot harder to extinct
them by hunting them down and killing them. (Marine mammals and
reptiles excepted, obviously.) Fish stocks can rebound from disasters
like El Nino quite rapidly, because a single fish might produce hundreds
of thousands of eggs or sperm, etc. For example, the collapsed
Peruvian fishing industry could probably recover, if the Peruvian
government could persuade the industry away from "Tragedy of the
Commons" mismanagement.

Marine communities are not very biodiverse both because the oceans
as a whole are far less productive than the land, and because the
ocean continually sweeps everything around. (Mixing time in the
ocean is on the order of 500 years. Throw in a conservative solute,
and its concentration will be nearly uniform in the ocean after
that time. That means a critter will tend to spread to all the places
it can inhabit, too, unless some barrier like a cold ocean and a
continent stand in the way.)

Benthic marine communities are often transient. For example they
somehow form around geologic vents or sunken whale carcasses, and exist
for a relatively short time before they exhaust their energy/nutrient
sources.

Other possible causes of problems in the SF bay would include
wetlands destruction and filling, loss of silt and freshwater influx
from rivers due to damming and irrigation, etc. According to an
oceanography text I have here, San Francisco Bay originally covered
437 mi^2; now it is down to 179 mi^2, with most of the filling going
on in the past 50 years. This seems hard to believe. But
obviously, cutting the area in half will change the entire ecological
character of the place. Especially since the prime sites for filling
are the shallow areas of highest productivity. Same goes for pumping
in a lot of sewage, which could cause eutrophication, etc. Landfills
interfere with tidal flushing, which would aggravate the pollution
problems.

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 30, 1991, 5:49:48 PM10/30/91
to


--
Daniel Mocsny

What Daniel Mocsny says about entropy is qualitatively correct. The
next step is to be quantitative. What the second law of
thermodynamics says about the work needed extract a unit mass of a
substance from a low grade ore is that it is at least proportional to
the negative logarithm of the concentration (and to the absolute
temperature). The logarithm tells us that the work required doesn't
go up very fast as the concentration goes down. If we extract iron
from high grade ores and then let it get mixed up, we will eventually
have to be extracting it from random rock. This will require several
times as much energy as present extraction methods would require if
they were thermodynamically efficent. I once did the calculation
for plutonium. It turns out that it would be efficient to extract
one atom of plutonium from the entire universe. That logarithm just
doesn't grow very fast.

Actually present extraction methods are nowhere near thermodynamically
efficient, so the second law tells us almost nothing about the use
of low grade ores. Moreover, no-one even bothers to figure out how
to use low grade ores until there is some prospect of running out
of higher grade ores. Therefore, there isn't any demonstration that
the pessimists are wrong. However, when we look at the economic
trends of mineral extraction costs we see them going down as the
famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich shows.

There is one ore currently extracted from very low grade ores in
the U.S., and that's copper, which is currently extracted from
ores that are only ten times as concentrated as copper is in the
earth's crust. This competes in the U.S. with importing copper
from Chile, which is extracted from much higher grade ores.


--
"There's not a woman in his book, the plot hinges on unkindness to
animals, and the black characters mostly drown by chapter 29."

John McCarthy, Computer Science Department, Stanford, CA 94305

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 30, 1991, 5:53:11 PM10/30/91
to
It was my impression that the 9 billion sardines off the coast
of California in the 1930s were not confined to bays but were
mostly rather far off the coast.

I leave as an exercise for the reader how the sardines were counted
in the 1930s.

Alan McGowen

unread,
Oct 31, 1991, 2:37:24 PM10/31/91
to
/ hpindda:sci.environment / dmo...@piglet.cincinnati.oh.us (Daniel Mocsny) / 4:04 pm Oct 29, 1991 /

>In article <14666...@igc.org> al...@igc.org (Alan McGowen) writes:
>>Then why haven't the sardines returned to Monterey Bay? It's been
>>rather more than "a few years" since they were fished out.
>
>>The overfishing destroyed the populations, changing the community
>>structure, apparently irreversibly.
>
>I would actually suspect pollution rather than overfishing.

[...]

>Other possible causes of problems in the SF bay would include
>wetlands destruction and filling, loss of silt and freshwater influx
>from rivers due to damming and irrigation, etc.

I think you are right about SF Bay, but not about Monterey Bay. The
factors you mention would decrease the productivity of the entire
ecosystem, not just of part of the top trophic levels of it (the
target of fishing). That is exactly what has happened in SF Bay, but
there is no real reason to believe that the primary productivity of
Monterey Bay has dropped: it supports an immensely productive kelp
forest, for example, and populations of marine mammals (sea otters
and northern elephant seals) have been recovering quite well. So the
likeliest explanation is a change in the community structure. Of course,
it would be nice to be able to check that theory against a record of
NPP through the cannery row epoch, but I don't think such measurments
were made. Steinbeck's Doc Rickerts was not an ecosystem ecologist.

The area around Monterey Bay is not intensively developed. Santa Cruz
county to the north is largely forested and was heavily logged in the
last century: it used to support a population of grizzly bears, now
extinct, and its salmon and steelhead production are much diminished,
but it is now primarily a tourist economy. There is a large PG&E power
plant on the Elkhorn Slough which feeds into Monterey Bay, and much adjacent
agriculture, but much of the Slough still exists [I believe it is Nature
Conservancy land]. The economy of Monterey county to the south is tourism,
golfing, and residences of famous actors. It doesn't produce massive
amounts of pollution.

As bays near major population centers go, Monterey Bay is in exceptionally
good condition. Ongoing anthropogenic stress, or natural causes for decreased
productivity such as John McCarthy suggested, are not likely to be the main
culprits in this case. Shrinkage of the Elkhorn Slough salt marsh might have
been a contributing factor.

-------
Alan McGowen

John McCarthy

unread,
Oct 31, 1991, 8:12:08 PM10/31/91
to
Alan McGowen speculates that shrinkage of the Elkhorn Slough salt marsh
might have been a contributing factor in the failure of the Pacific
sardine population to recover. However, one of my past good deeds
comes back to reward me - giving my daughter Grzimek's Animal
Encyclopedia. According to Grzimek, all sardines lay pelagic eggs,
and I suppose this means that they are not dependent on salt water
sloughs. The article in question included the Pacific sardine in
the species discussed.

How did they know there were nine billion?

Alan McGowen

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 1:41:00 AM11/1/91
to

/* Written 4:53 pm Oct 30, 1991 by jmc in cdp:sci.environmen */


>It was my impression that the 9 billion sardines off the coast
>of California in the 1930s were not confined to bays but were
>mostly rather far off the coast.

The fish went where they could eat -- to productive ecosystems
like Monterey Bay and the Farrallones. And that is where the
fishing fleet followed them, and fished them out.

>I leave as an exercise for the reader how the sardines were counted
>in the 1930s.

Doc Rickerts: "People ask - where did the sardines go? They went
into the cans."

Count them as you pack them away for good, no?

How do we know there were a billion passenger pigeons once? Or
that there was once a cod fishery off Nova Scotia that fed Europe
for a century?

------
Alan McGowen

Daniel Mocsny

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 11:48:22 AM11/1/91
to
In article <JMC.91Oc...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU> j...@cs.Stanford.EDU writes:
>What Daniel Mocsny says about entropy is qualitatively correct. The
>next step is to be quantitative. What the second law of
>thermodynamics says about the work needed extract a unit mass of a
>substance from a low grade ore is that it is at least proportional to
>the negative logarithm of the concentration (and to the absolute
>temperature).

(As we are drifting dangerously toward the reefs of rigor, I should
point out that the thermodynamicist uses "activity", rather than
"concentration", when computing the entropy of mixing in non-ideal
solutions. Activity is a sort of kludge accounting for solution
non-idealities, such as the tendency of electrolytes to order themselves
in aqueous solution via hydrogen bonding. However, for informal
sci.environment discussions, the difference is not significant. If we
were actually designing something, we might need to worry.)

> The logarithm tells us that the work required doesn't
>go up very fast as the concentration goes down.

Let's think here a bit about what the logarithm tells us. (Or rather,
what it doesn't tell us.)

The logarithm tells us about the work required by a *reversible*
process. This is a lower bound on the work required by all real
processes (assuming the Second Law holds, which so far looks pretty
solid).

What is the difference? A reversible process requires infinitesimal
driving forces. This means, at the limit, that the process requires
either infinite time, an infinite contact area, or some other
inconvenient way to realize infinity.

To build a practical device or process, we must relax the reversible
constraint and use finite driving forces. For example, to build a
practical heat exchanger, we must maintain a finite temperature
difference between the two bodies exchanging heat. Transferring
heat across a finite temperature difference is an irreversible
process, i.e., the total availability of the effluent streams
is less than the total availability of the influent streams.

The simple countercurrent heat-exchanger design equation for
two liquid streams each having constant heat capacity is:

Q = U A (delta T)_lm

where Q is the heat transferred in watts, U is a heat-transfer
coefficient (which we can pretend is a constant), A is the
cross-sectional area for heat transfer, and (delta T)_lm is the
log-mean temperature difference in the exchanger. Without worrying
too much about the details, note that when we solve for area A, the
temperature difference winds up in the denominator.

This leads to the classic heat-exchanger design dilemma: dividing
the net temperature driving force in half (and thereby putting the
exchanger closer to reversibility) doubles the required heat exchange
area. Thus, for at least this type of device, approaching reversibility
rapidly becomes very expensive.

Experience suggests that similar difficulties exist with other
processes. For example, if you wish to cool a sample of material as
close to absolute zero as possible, the energy requirements to
remove each half of the remaining heat seem to grow similarly. It's
much like sweeping the kitchen floor. It takes a few minutes to get
the first 90% of the dirt, then about the same effort to get 90% of
the remaining dirt on the second pass, etc.

Of course, all of the above comments about real processes assume
static technology. That's a reasonable assumption for short time
frames, but a bad assumption in the long run. On the other hand,
technologies like heat exchangers have been around for a long time
without significant improvement.

In any case, it seems pretty certain that all real processes will
always have to run somewhere away from the reversible limit. The
important question is, how far away? The answer seems to vary
from one process to another. A large power plant can run rather
closely to its reversible limit, whereas other processes might be
orders of magnitude away.

> If we extract iron
>from high grade ores and then let it get mixed up, we will eventually
>have to be extracting it from random rock. This will require several
>times as much energy as present extraction methods would require if
>they were thermodynamically efficent.

As I mentioned above, real processes approach their reversible
limits by varying amounts. One criticism often leveled at solar
power is that the source is diffuse, and therefore extraction
schemes must cover large areas. Similarly, extracting iron from
random rock would impact large areas and create large tailing
piles. (Unless, of course, we invent some form of subtle in-situ
extraction, such as genetically engineered organisms which can
bioconcentrate the desired mineral from leachate. But it's a safe
bet that a process for exploiting lower-grade ores will have more
side effects.)

Coping with random rock is also much harder than coping with a
low-grade ore of uniform composition. That doesn't mean it's
impossible, of course.

> I once did the calculation
>for plutonium. It turns out that it would be efficient to extract
>one atom of plutonium from the entire universe. That logarithm just
>doesn't grow very fast.

In this extreme example we clearly see the shortcomings of the
reversible limit as a method for predicting the performance of
*some* real processes.

Surely with any practical technology we can now imagine, simply *LOCATING*
a particular atom of plutonium in the entire universe would require an
exhorbitant energy expenditure. Also, if the atom's position is
random, then we will have to retrieve it from a distance on the
order of half the diameter of the universe. Even if we know where
the atom is, retrieving it close to reversibly would require, on
average, more than the probable remaining lifetime of the universe.
I can't think of any obvious practical way to accelerate the atom to
high speed and later recover its kinetic energy, can you? The best
I can think of requires placing a lot of equipment at the start
and end of the atom's trajectory. Perhaps our descendents will know
how to reversibly warp space.

(As I have said before, I suspect that if technology continues to
advance, eventually "all things" must become possible.)

>Actually present extraction methods are nowhere near thermodynamically
>efficient, so the second law tells us almost nothing about the use
>of low grade ores. Moreover, no-one even bothers to figure out how
>to use low grade ores until there is some prospect of running out
>of higher grade ores.

The degree to which real processes approach their reversible
counterparts seems to depend on something rather mysterious right
now, not just whether anyone has bothered to work on it. Some problems
seem to respond better to our efforts than others. Technological
progress is not directly proportional to effort in all areas.
Technology seems to evolve in unpredictable spurts, much like
the fossil record suggests life has evolved.

> Therefore, there isn't any demonstration that
>the pessimists are wrong.

For completeness, we might also mention that there isn't any
demonstration that the "optimists" are right.

I prefer the label "conservative" instead of "pessimist". When faced
with an uncertain risk, the conservative proceeds cautiously. If the
conservative were truly a pessimist, he would just shoot himself now.
The fact that the conservative has a policy indicates he has hope.

> However, when we look at the economic
>trends of mineral extraction costs we see them going down as the
>famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich shows.

Right up until the _Titanic_ struck the iceberg, there was no indication
that the passengers and crew had anything to worry about. The economic
trends of non-sustainable industries are not by themselves meaningful.
Mining as practiced today is clearly non-sustainable. We have no
mechanisms in place to restore ore bodies as we consume them. Therefore,
we are in a race between exhausting the usable ore bodies, and
developing technology to (1) exploit lower-grade ores;
(2) de-materialize the economy (which is indeed in progress); and/or
(3) improve the efficiency of recycling (either natural or artificial).

Since I am not a pessimist, I do not predict the winner of this race.
I suggest we act conservatively, and try to buy time by at least
discouraging wasteful practices. For example, there is no economic
loss when we persuade Joe Six-Pack to refrain from tossing his
beverage can on the shoulder of a scenic highway.

>There is one ore currently extracted from very low grade ores in
>the U.S., and that's copper, which is currently extracted from
>ores that are only ten times as concentrated as copper is in the
>earth's crust. This competes in the U.S. with importing copper
>from Chile, which is extracted from much higher grade ores.

I am not familiar with this process, so I have no specific comments.
However, I have the following questions:

1. Does the USA process require digging up the ore? That means
moving 10 times as much material per unit yield. That also means
a hole in the ground ten times bigger, and a tailings pile scaled
similarly, etc. Thus we have a process which is 10 times more
obtrusive at first inspection. Even if the greater energy is
available, releasing it will often have more side effects.

2. Uniformity of feedstock composition is as important to a process
as is the concentration of desired product. That is why, for example,
we do not now mine landfills for their metal content. Future technology
may produce garbage-separating robots, which would be most useful,
given that people seem reluctant to assume this small burden when
they generate garbage. (And manufacturers do not help, by failing to
label products by their constituent materials, etc.)

3. Other important minerals are less abundant in the Earth's crust
than copper.

John McCarthy

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 10:57:22 AM11/1/91
to
In article <14666...@igc.org> al...@igc.org (Alan McGowen) writes:

------
Alan McGowen

Alan McGowen seems to think my question about how the sardines
were counted was rhetorical. It wasn't. They really were
counted - by clever and inventive people who went to considerable
trouble to do it.

John McCarthy

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 11:11:35 AM11/1/91
to
I have little quarrel with Daniel Mocsny's scientific discussion of
low grade ores and heat exchangers. I wasn't claiming that one could
get anywhere near the efficiency of extraction that the second law of
thermodynamics permits. I was simply refuting simplistic appeals
to the second law of thermodynamics as an argument against low grade
ores. You can find such a simplistic argument in _Population, Resources
and Environment_, an extremely popular (and PC) textbook by Paul
and Ann Ehrlich. Incidentally, I don't believe you will find the
more extreme statements from Ehrlich in the textbook. He apparently
reserves them for rallies of true believers and is more circumspect
when just anybody may be paying attention.

The trouble with Mocsny's claim to conservativism is that it is
a quite expensive and dangerous strategy. No previous technology
was sustainable, and traditional societies repeatedly collapsed
from soil exhaustion, overhunting, cutting down trees, etc.
Animal populations also usually suffer catastrophes. Only considerable
advances in technology can yield a society that could last for
the billions of years that our sun will remain on the main sequence.
We really are going to run out of fossil fuel, and we really need
nuclear energy.

Josh Rovero

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 1:26:45 PM11/1/91
to
In article <4091...@hpindda.cup.hp.com> al...@hpindda.cup.hp.com (Alan McGowen) writes:
>As bays near major population centers go, Monterey Bay is in exceptionally
>good condition. Ongoing anthropogenic stress, or natural causes for decreased
>productivity such as John McCarthy suggested, are not likely to be the main
>culprits in this case. Shrinkage of the Elkhorn Slough salt marsh might have
>been a contributing factor.
>
>-------
>Alan McGowen

Even worse, if the sardines *did* come back, current zoning and
environmental sensitivities wouldn't allow the sardine canneries to
operate. The last cannery (handling sardines and squid) is in Sand
City and even it is under pressure from some circles to stop operating
in any competitive manner.

I'll even bet there's lots of current progressive eco types here that are
*glad* those smelly canneries, fishing fleets, and blue collar work forces
are gone.


--
Josh Rovero (rov...@oc.nps.navy.mil) | or Internet 53...@cc.nps.navy.mil
Department of Oceanography, Code OC/Rv | Bitnet 5346p@NAVPGS
Naval Postgraduate School |
Monterey, CA 93943 (408) 646-3255 |

John McCarthy

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 3:52:04 PM11/1/91
to

That's all right. If the sardines come back, the Japanese, the Mexicans
and the Russians will be glad to can them and sell them to us.

Alan McGowen

unread,
Nov 1, 1991, 2:01:40 PM11/1/91
to
/ hpindda:sci.environment / j...@SAIL.Stanford.EDU (John McCarthy) / 5:12 pm Oct 31, 1991 /

>Alan McGowen speculates that shrinkage of the Elkhorn Slough salt marsh
>might have been a contributing factor in the failure of the Pacific
>sardine population to recover. However, one of my past good deeds
>comes back to reward me - giving my daughter Grzimek's Animal
>Encyclopedia. According to Grzimek, all sardines lay pelagic eggs,
>and I suppose this means that they are not dependent on salt water
>sloughs. The article in question included the Pacific sardine in
>the species discussed.

The Slough is an important component of the food web in the bay. But I
doubt that wetlands shrinkage was a major contributor to the collapse
of sardine populations -- as I've said, I suspect a change in community
structure triggered primarily by overharvesting.

----------
Alan McGowen

Nick Szabo

unread,
Nov 3, 1991, 5:03:14 AM11/3/91
to

>I think it's a fair bet that future generations will
>regard themselves as being more enlightened than we are. I wouldn't
>be surprised to hear of parents telling their children how we used
>to spend hundreds of watts to light a room, or how we drove
>3000 kg vehicles to pick up a single newspaper printed on a dead
>tree, and so on. That is, if the terms "parents" and "children"
>preserve their same meaning.

I can buy the first sentence; certainly many folks in our contemporary
society look with moral indignation on slavery, genocide, and other
evils of the past, while considering ourselves (or at least themselves)
the epitomy of ultimate morality. If this is at all normal
we can expect our children to rake us over the coals, no matter what
we do. :-)

They might just as easily tell horror stories about people who used
virus-filled shit to grow their crops, ate foods without first
removing the natural toxins, even encouraged the genetic engineering
of natural pesticides, and were paranoid about overpopulation while at
the same time paying high premiums for low-calorie "diet" foods.

It is more probable that our descendents -- for those of us not cowed
into self-genocide who will actually have descendents, that is --
will have far more energy available than ourselves; I can easily
envision a scenario a century from now where electricity costs a
thousandth of today's price but thermal energy is far cheaper still
and used for many industrial processes not available today. (No; fusion,
nanotech, and SPS are not involved, but space travel is). They will
wonder how we could cram a whole family into 3,000 kg vehicles and how
somebody could read a document that can't be computer-searched. Only
historically minded ecocentrics among them will worry about the oil
supply (much as today's editions worry about the Medieval deforestations
in Europe).


--
sz...@techbook.COM ...!{tektronix!nosun,uunet}techbook!szabo
Public Access UNIX at (503) 644-8135 (1200/2400) Voice: +1 503 646-8257
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