I took this in our greenhouse today.
Edit: My cat picture made it to the front page of Reddit. I can die now.
This chapter Nate Hagens wrote for Fleeing Vesuvius is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.
It’s about the evolutionary/neurological reasons humans are susceptible to addictions and the effect those traits are having on our collective ability to deal with the imbalances our species has created: climate change, resource depletion, etc. “We would be wise to adhere to an evolutionary perspective in considering a future more sustainable society.”
Humans have an innate need for status and for novelty in their lives. Unfortunately, the modern world has adopted very energy- and resource-intensive ways of meeting those needs. Other ways are going to have to be found as part of the move to a more sustainable world.
Most people associate the word “sustainability” with changes to the supply side of our modern way of life such as using energy from solar flows rather than fossil fuels, recycling, green tech and greater efficiency. In this essay, however, I will focus on the demand-side drivers that explain why we continue to seek and consume more stuff.
When addressing ‘demand-side drivers’, we must begin at the source: the human brain. The various layers and mechanisms of our brain have been built on top of each other via millions and millions of iterations, keeping intact what ‘worked’ and adding via changes and mutations what helped the pre-human, pre-mammal organism to incrementally advance. Brain structures that functioned poorly in ancient environments are no longer around. Everyone reading this page is descended from the best of the best at both surviving and procreating which, in an environment of privation and danger where most ‘iterations’ of our evolution happened, meant acquiring necessary resources, achieving status and possessing brains finely tuned to natural dangers and opportunities.
This essay outlines two fundamental ways in which the evolutionarily derived reward pathways of our brains are influencing our modern overconsumption. First, financial wealth accumulation and the accompanying conspicuous consumption are generally regarded as the signals of modern success for our species. This gives the rest of us environmental cues to compete for more and more stuff as a proxy of our status and achievement. A second and more subtle driver is that we are easily hijacked by and habituated to novel stimuli. As we shall see, the prevalence of novelty today eventually demands higher and higher levels of neural stimulation, which often need increased consumption to satisfy. Thus it is this combination of pursuit of social status and the plethora of novel activitiesthat underlies our large appetite for resource throughput.
His reaction to his new cochlear implant made my day.
Charles Wohlforth covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill for the Anchorage Daily News 21 years ago. After years of writing about how inadequate Exxon’s response was he finally came to this realization:
…I had covered the wrong story. The important point wasn’t that Exxon couldn’t clean up its oil spill. The point was, no one could clean it up.
By telling the story of the company’s incompetence, we had perpetuated the myth that real cleanup of a major oil spill is possible. We had left the industry free to say that next time, with proper preparation and equipment, they would be able to recover any spilled oil.
The truth is that when large amounts of oil go into the ocean, it’s a huge success to recover as much as 10 percent. More than that is rarely possible. Oil spreads too rapidly and reacts too quickly with the environment; and the ocean is a challenging place to work, especially considering the logistics of speedily gathering up a blob the size of a small state.
…as a society we’re not compelled to allow drilling that puts these precious places at risk. We could instead choose to not drill offshore, then let energy prices rise accordingly and switch to the alternative fuels that would become economically viable.
Believe it or not, peak phosphorus is probably our biggest global emergency, but I don’t hear anyone talking about it.
Phosphorus is one of the most the important elements of life. It is a major component of RNA, DNA, and ATP (the molecule produced by photosynthesis that carries energy to the other plant cells – which in turn provide us with energy).
Of the nutrients used as building blocks for life, the following elements all have gaseous phases at the temperatures and pressures found on the surface of the Earth and are therefore easily redistributed through the air:
However, the following elements are solids or liquids and don’t move around so easily:
In a natural ecosystem or on a traditional small farm, plants take these molecules out of the soil and air to build themselves. Animals eat the plants and use the same molecules to construct their bodies. When the plants and animals die, microbes return the molecules to the soil. Lather, rinse, repeat.
On the other hand, with our current industrial agriculture system the plants do their part and take in the molecules they’re supposed to, but then we ship them to a feedlot or city where they are consumed and decay far away from where they originated. The molecules of the elements easily transported by air are replaced relatively easily, but the molecules of solid and liquid elements won’t make it back to the field they came from for a long, long time.
Phosphorus is more sensitive to this imbalance than the others because it is 10X more concentrated in the body than it is in the Earth’s crust. None of the others are more concentrated in living beings like that.
The phosphorus was originally put in the soil by weathering phosphate rocks. That’s still going on, but that process took millions of years to build up the reserves we used during the last century.
To replace the missing phosphorus, we mine phosphate rock, grind it up, and sprinkle it on the soil for the plants to use as RNA, cell walls, etc. This seemed like a great idea when we figured it out 170 years ago. It continued seeming like a good idea all the way up until about 40 years ago when we started noticing the two big problems with this system:
Phosphorus that doesn’t get used is washed away by rain into rivers and eventually into the ocean. Phytoplankton (algae) in the ocean are very happy with their newfound abundance. They grow fat and reproduce prolifically. The problem comes when they die. As the algae is decaying, the bacteria breaking it down use too much of the oxygen dissolved in the water, killing everything else in that area.
We’ve already used half of the phosphate rock available. According to a study by Patrick Dery peak phosphorus occurred in the US in 1988 and the rest of the world in 1989. Others think we’re still 30 years away from the peak, but it doesn’t matter who’s right. Either way, unless we change what we’re doing now, we will have depleted our supply of the central building block of life within a few hundred years of discovering it, and we do not know how to make more.
Current uses of mined phosphate rock:
5% animal feed supplements.
5% soft drinks, toothpaste, etc.
Fortunately, the solution is easy. We did it for our first 100,000 years, and we’re the only creatures not currently doing it. The answer is eat, poo, and die in one place.
That doesn’t mean we all have to be farmers, but it does mean we need to be localvores and get over being sqweamish about the fact that we’re animals that are part of the web of life.
Plant food in your yard. Buy the food you don’t grow from local farmers. Insist on pasture raised meat. Compost every organic material you can find. Crap in a bucket. When it’s time to die, have yourself planted in the ground without preservatives so that a tree can build itself out of the molecules you’ve been using.