Notes June 16

June 17, 2008 § Leave a comment

Important discussion. I hope to analyze this.>

The above and other cases exemplify several characteristics common to high- and low-gain extraction in human and other living systems. We presented these characteristics in Table 1 as a set of initial hypotheses. High-gain systems, we argue, tap into steep energy gradients, often in new ways. These systems are impressive not only in their capture of energy but also, and more importantly, in their net return on investment. Because resources are abundant and the demands on the system are minimal, resource use tends to be dissipative and inefficient. The steep energy gradient forces new organization on the system, which causes new levels to emerge at the top of a hierarchy. If such a system is disturbed, the steep energy gradient means that the system will self-repair, or that a similar one will take its place. As just noted, beaver will attempt to repair and recolonize high-quality sites after other beaver are removed. Because the high-return resource comes inevitably to be used fully or depleted, however, high-gain phases in human societies and among animals such as beaver tend to be short.
Low-gain phases depend on resources that have a shallower gradient of potential degradation. In a low-gain phase, resources are scarce, and, if the demands on the system are great, it will be vulnerable to instability or will require higher organization. Although net output per capita is low, it is great in the aggregate. Whereas high-gain phases are impressive in their dissipation of energy, low-gain phases are more impressive for their organization. Higher levels of organization and effort are required to maintain a sufficient flow of resources, as seen in the trails of leaf-cutter ants, in beaver canals, or in imperial taxation. In the later Roman Empire, as described above, taxation officials assessed the expected productivity of every parcel of land across all of northwestern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. New levels in a low-gain system, such as bureaucrats or administrators, are inserted into the middle of the hierarchy, which always increases its complexity and costs. Although small energy margins mean that individual producers in such systems are vulnerable to perturbation, the systems themselves may be long-lived due to the ubiquity of low-gain resources.

This framework not only helps us to understand empires, ants, and beavers, but it also suggests clues about our potential future. Since the development of industrialism and economies based on fossil fuels, the world’s wealthier nations have been in a high-gain phase. Because high-gain systems use high-quality, concentrated energy, their energy usage is intensive and local. In contrast, low-gain systems, which rely on low-quality energy, must be dispersed in their resource capture and organized correspondingly. Despite the fact that engineers are impressive in their ability to extend the era of high-gain fossil fuel dependence, we know that someday the energy opportunity cost of fossil fuels will reach the point that our dependence on such fuels will diminish (e.g., Campbell and Laherrère 1998). Before that happens, perhaps nuclear fusion will be controlled to the point that it is safe and efficient, providing us with a further source of high-quality energy. A primary alternative is the so-called “green” energy sources, including renewables such as wind, wave, and solar. We focus on the consequences of possible future dependence on these.
Renewable energy sources are low gain, yielding little net energy per unit of production compared to fossil fuels. Most renewables depend ultimately on the sun, and the conversion of solar energy to mechanical work is still inefficient (Wayne et al. 1992). Low-gain energy production must therefore be dispersed.
The industrial era was characterized by the application of large amounts of energy and raw materials to solve problems by brute force. In today’s so-called information economy, there is much less need to move matter and people. Human settlement can be dispersed. Thus, today we are becoming accustomed to telecommuting, the increased conversion of rural areas into low-density housing, and even the gentrification of rural areas that have traditionally been isolated and impoverished.
The dispersed energy production that would be required by low-gain resources is a good fit with the sort of dispersed settlement pattern that an information economy allows. One scenario for a postcarbon future is dispersed production of low-gain energy by small communities or even individual households. Energy would be captured by small, individual units scattered across the landscape. This is the green energy scenario that many think would be a desirable future, or even preferable today. Unlike many commentators, we take care not to impute morality to preferences regarding energy production systems. Without judgment, therefore, we point out that green energy would encompass its own costs and its own winners and losers. For many people, the transformation would be catastrophic because a decentralized production system would make many infrastructure workers redundant. Urban decay would accompany increased rural settlement. At the same time, new opportunities would emerge in the manufacture and repair of small, dispersed sources of energy production. Hydrogen might be generated as part of local energy-capture systems (Barbir 2001), so that at least some high-quality energy would be available for tasks that require it. Many people might prefer such a decentralized existence, but others would find it wrenching. It would require capital investment by each family or community. These investments would be largely redundant, with high energy-opportunity costs, and would not initially enjoy economies of scale. Living standards, as currently defined, would likely decline.
Renewable energy is a popular concept, but there is a certain irony in this. Although environmentalists are quick to blame industry and fossil fuels, the environmental damage done to the world is only partly from industrial sources. The energy used in the industrial world is principally of high quality. It works in a focused fashion with concentrated side effects. In contrast, low-gain agriculture, a highly dispersed activity, is causing a substantial loss of species as well as environmental degradation. The distributed nature of agriculture means that habitat is removed and landscapes are greatly altered. Increased flooding, soil loss, and nonpoint sources of pollution are to a large extent caused by agriculture, as exemplified by the flooding of the Mississippi River in 1993 and the Ohio River in 1997. Although some observers criticize the environmental effects of agribusiness, Third World peasants at their present population levels have an aggregate effect that is substantial, and perhaps comparable. Similarly, the environmental impact of ants that use droppings is minimal compared to those that strip leaves from plants. The former are not considered agricultural pests, whereas the latter are. Environmental degradation is greater when the resource is of low quality and distributed but heavily used. Thus, a switch to renewable energy sources might bring, ironically, environmental damage comparable in scale to, or greater than, that caused by the use of fossil fuels. It is also ironic that, although industrialists have not rushed to embrace renewable energy sources, great profits would be made from building the infrastructure needed to capture and concentrate renewable resources. Politicians would be influenced less by road builders and more by businesses that recreate coastlines for wave capture and cover huge tracts of land with solar collectors or wind generators.

The concepts of high and low energy gains clarify important organizational differences in human societies and other living systems. The quality of resources and the returns on exploiting them impose organizational constraints that are inescapable. We characterize high- and low-gain systems as polar opposites, but of course there are innumerable systems of resource extraction in between these two extremes. Understanding the organizational requirements of these extraction systems is a rich topic for integrated social and biological research.
It has long been a tantalizing goal to understand commonalities across living systems. The occasional attempts (e.g., Miller 1978, Holling 2001) have so far not generated sustained research programs. In this regard, the potential of studying energy gain is not only that it reveals patterns across living systems, but also that these patterns may clarify potential human energy futures. Thus, the physical science concept of energy gain has the potential to support humanistic interest in the energy transition that the industrial world will inevitably undergo. Energy gain is a uniquely valuable approach to understanding past and future human resource transitions and the ways of life that future energy will both enable and impose.

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You are currently reading Notes June 16 at Reflections on GardenWorld Politics Douglass Carmichael.


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