May 10, 2008

Global Suicide Pact: The Efficiency Trap

[I'm going to be gradually reposting this series, originally written for OpenLeft, in the order of their first appearance. But hey, I'm finally moved in to my new place (have my own bathroom again, woohoo!) and shouldn't be such an absentee blogger. Kissy the face, n]

Suicide (n) - The most preventable type of death.

This is the origin story of a species whose leaders had a death wish, and whose members at large mostly didn't.

What exactly is efficiency? You probably think about it in terms of hours worked to work product generated. In any science class, it usually means how much energy as applied to a system does useful work, as opposed to what's lost as heat. In biology, that general science definition gets applied to living things and what powers them, their food.

In every stage of food consumption, called a trophic level, about 90 percent of the energy consumed is lost.

At the first level, there are organisms like plants, also called primary producers, which take energy from the sun as food and harness that power to transform carbon dioxide gas into energy-rich sugars; the carbohydrates that are the base fuel for all other organic reactions. Primary producers are chemical factories that supply the base total amount of energy available to all the other chemical reactions needed to sustain life. At every successive level, animals who eat plants, then animals who eat animals who eat plants, about 90% of the remaining energy is lost. This doubtless seems very inefficient.

Unfortunately, everything you know about efficiency is based on a lie. It's a long story. Maybe it will help if you think of living things for the duration as machines powered by volatile chemicals, but here's why what we think we understand about efficiency is wrong, and dangerously so.

Rise of the Chemical Machines

In the beginning, Earth was a big ball of lifeless rock with a molten core, a poisonous atmosphere and a lot of nutrient saturated surface water. Every year, this ball of rock got light and heat from the sun and trapped some of it as kinetic energy. That energy did nothing more than keep the surface gases and liquids from freezing solid.

On the whole, it was a good system for keeping the planet from icing over completely. From my perspective though, and perhaps you'll agree, keeping planets from freezing when they're only 93 million miles away from a massive fusion reaction is kind of boring.

Something interesting was happening under all that water, though. Near the gas vents at the ocean floors and even within the warm, but not too hot, layers of rock, machines began assembling themselves. No, really! Somehow, chains of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus compounds had gotten carried away with self-replicating chain reactions enclosed within soap bubble-like membranes, powered by chemical reactions and warmth.

[You've heard of them referred to as cells, and that's fine. Just don't allow your multi-cellular myopia prevent you from realizing that a free living single-celled organism is a complete example of its species every bit as much as your many cells together taken in totality. Even if they aren't conscious as we know it.]

The machines started concentrating the abundantly available nutrients into their bodies, but when food eventually became scarce in places like marginal, open water habitats (or perhaps before, and for fun, it isn't like they wrote any of this down,) they began at some point to consume each other to get those same stores of nutrients, dissolving a second machine into its base molecular components for their own sustenance.

Then something odd happened.

The light and heat from the big fusion pile in the sky had always bombarded the surface layers of the planet with ultraviolet radiation that introduced so many errors into the machines' processes that they were permanently stopped on exposure.

Astonishingly, some of the machines figured out a way to harness some of that sterilizing radiation and use it as a power source. The result created deadly oxygen gas that permeated the seas, pushing the other machines farther away from the surface, but also changing the atmosphere so that more UV radiation was reflected into space. The machines were able to creep closer and closer to the surface without breaking and permanently stopping, and more of them all the time, as other machines developed ways to deal with oxygen.

Then something even stranger happened. Some of the machines ate each other and, instead of the second membrane-enclosed, self-replicating machine being digested for scrap, it was incorporated into the body of the first as a working mini-organ, or organelle. Certain of these organelles produced energy for the host cell, more than it ever could have generated on its own.

The DNA, or operating instructions, for the organelles migrated slowly, though incompletely, towards the central DNA repository for the host. The two became one flesh.

At some point, these odd hybrids developed sex. Wahoo! Which meant that two replicating machines could mix up their operating instructions and produce another hybrid organism that resembled them both, but was unique. This was an energy-expensive process, but flush with the power boost provided by organelles that could harness oxygen-fueled reactions, they were able to take advantage of the way that sexual replication rapidly produced highly fit and complex iterations.

The iterations produced by sex replication could be made of many linked cells that would formerly have been out on their own. The many became one flesh.

The multicellular organisms proved very efficient at concentrating nutrients by consuming other chemical machines, though the descendants of the original self-replicators were still around. They still represent the greatest chemical diversity of any living things. There's always room at the bottom.

What The Machines Did

And so goes the story of the planet's earliest life forms, our ancestors, the bacteria and their immediate descendants. There are bacteria that can eat virtually anything and live under almost any conditions. Some have different DNA codes, or run entirely on RNA, which is a single strand complement of DNA in cells, one that evolved first and gave rise to the double strand DNA molecule. They generated a wide variety of novel, self- and sex replicating life forms.

Together, they and their descendants turned a bare, boring rock into a planet covered with life, which is way more interesting than rocks. For one thing, life tends not to stay where it's been put, moving around willy nilly under its own power. Hours of entertainment!

Yet in all those billions of years, summed up here so brusquely, the Earth continued to get the same amount of energy just about every year. Give or take a few asteroid collisions, it had about the same amount of raw materials available to us, today. In fact, considering that UV radiation began to be reflected away, less heat and light now makes it down to the surface.

All these tiers of living things, feeding on each other in life and death, use no more energy than was available to their ancestors. What they do is keep more of it and use it more creatively.

They hold carbon that used to be in the atmosphere, where it trapped in too much heat and created too much pressure for comfort as gaseous carbon dioxide, in their living tissues. They power exotic chemical reactions in response to each other, and far more complex living conditions. The energy of that fusion pile in the sky can be used to power several cycles of living things before being dispersed again, slowly and in stages, as waste heat.

Inefficient, Bloody Machines

And all of this is, in a way, very inefficient. It relies on maximum energy being trapped at each step along the way. It allows entirely unnecessary things like sex, multicellular organisms, colorful appearances and delicious food. It allows over-sized nervous systems and millions of varieties of chemical machines to compete at performing a basic task like converting light and heat, or light and heat stored as sugar, fat and protein, into chemical reactions.

I mean, why not have just one kind of machine, or just enough to fill the basic ecosystem niches?

The way life operates in systems is different from a modern capitalist conception of efficiency, not in terms of wanting to get more out of the same or less, but what gets done with the 'more.'

Energy, fuel and materials, often symbolized by money, but always coming back to a basic capacity to do work, is supposed to flow towards fewer and fewer hands to be efficient in the modern capitalist sense. In living systems, it's supposed to flow through ever more hands, getting trapped and held at every level for the work of powering all sorts of life processes, but never held permanently.

A lion, for example, concentrates a lot of energy and nutrients, but at some point it releases them back down the chain, which allows living things other than lions, and less efficient at trapping energy, to flourish. That's good for the lions, because otherwise they'd eventually run out of food. You see how it is.

Modern economies are structured with the goal of efficiently reducing the energy stored at every stage to produce large concentrations of wealth that are not released for other processes. Ecosystems are structured with the goal of storing energy (i.e., wealth) across as many structures and in as many hands as possible in case ... well, there's always an 'in case.'

There are climate changes, disease epidemics, natural disasters, damaging mutations, droughts, famines, all kinds of problems that are unpredictable but come around over and over again with a certainty. Living systems that are diverse and superficially inefficient, where at every stage there's enough energy to maintain a flourishing bounty of living beings, ensure the greatest chance of survival of at least some of them. On the other hand, in ecosystems where one species has over-concentrated energy to the detriment of all the others, a change in circumstance can be far more destructive than it might have been otherwise.

It's actively inimical to life. Also, an indication of a floundering economy, as Adam Smith himself noted in Wealth of Nations:

The liberal reward of labour, therefore, ... is the natural symptom of increasing national wealth. The scanty maintenance of the labouring poor, on the other hand, is the natural symptom that things are at a stand, and their starving condition that they are going fast backwards.

And that makes sense. We're living things, too, complex and self-directed; not simple clockwork parts. Even as we're like machines in some ways, we require a considerable portion of our energy for our own purposes -- and this is not waste, but the preservation of life in its rich elaboration.

"The Original Purchase-Money"

From the beginning of industrialization, when it became possible to super-concentrate more wealth than ever before, humans have been rapidly displacing other chemical machines. We consume nearly 40% of the primary productivity, (that energy captured into living things and stored as carbon compounds,) of the entire planet.

There are now fewer kinds of things that don't stay where they're put. Fewer kinds of things that can take energy and make something more fun happen with it than the production of waste heat. Again, that sounds like an increase in the boredom quotient to me. And I so hate that!

We've increased the efficiency of the process of nutrient and energy flow on the planet. It goes from the sun, to a plant, maybe to an animal that eats that plant, and onto our dinner tables or into our consumer goods chain, then ... waste heat. Then, the loss of the nutrients fixed by that energy to the ocean, or a waste dump, or the atmosphere.

We're starving our fellow species out and impoverishing ourselves in the process.

Because there's always as much dead matter as there ever was. Matter, the base chemical components of the universe, can neither be created nor destroyed. There aren't always more living, chemical machines; with their quirky operating instructions, engineering creativity, inefficiency, and autonomous motion. Machines that can do truly interesting work and ... remember that we're talking about the capacity to do work, right? Adam Smith, once more from Wealth of Nations:

Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who posses it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command.

There is nothing that so distinguishes the Earth from sweltering Venus, or from the frigid mineral opulence of the asteroid belt, as the laboring life that it harbors.

That life which has spent patient aeons complicating things. Lurching between equilibrium and catastrophe, being culled thin and very slowly rebuilding, creating and solving fascinating problems, it has bequeathed to us a masterwork of chemical and mechanical wealth. Then we decided it'd be better to make all of that a little simpler.

Simple enough, it seems the goal is, that an illiterate child working for $0.25 an hour could run it from a sweatshop, with the sole intent of her employers being to afford another dead yacht.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. This is the call of the clockwork culture. Simplifying everything, not to free energy to sustain a greater wealth of life. No. To put everything within reach of ever simpler processes, and then use those processes to support ever fewer beings with ever greater energy.

Simplify, simplify, simplify. It is an order of destruction. A death march.

There's a lot more to understand about life on Earth and our place within it. Yet without these realizations, our resource and energy use policies will continue to be harmful. They will continue to miss the point.

And we all, tragically, will continue to pursue the most efficient possible path towards self-destruction.

In gratitude: I owe many of these overall concepts to John Ikerd's Sustainable Capitalism and James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency.

Other GSP installments:

Transnational Maoism - All hail our corporate mercantilist overlords.
Darfur Engine, Pt 2 - The long burn.
Darfur Engine, Pt 1 - You didn't think the Chinese had no precedent, did you?
Amish Takeover - Apocalyptic dystopia? No thanks, I'd rather have a civilization.
The Efficiency Trap - Energy flow in living systems and their origins.
The End of Cheap - Political reality, meet physical reality.

Posted by natasha at May 10, 2008 10:58 AM | Environment | Technorati links |