Saturday, December 22, 2012

59. The Agrocultural and Carbocultural Energy Regimes

The booming fire economy of the pyrocultural energy regime (cf. Part 58) led to the emergence of agriculture. Humans observed that, when a piece of land was charred by wildfire, it got cleared of the forest, and what is more, new plants sprouted in the resurrected land, under certain conditions. They burnt forests to clear more and more land for sowing seeds of edible crops. Agriculture was a far more efficient mode for acquiring food, compared to hunting and gathering. Thus evolved the agrocultural energy regime (Niele 2005).

The ever present influx of solar energy and its utilization through agriculture led to the emergence of new features like crafts, villages, a growing population, and new energy chains. ‘Cooking’ got elevated and diversified to other technologies like baking of bricks and making of glass, as also the processing of iron ore (see below). Alphabet and money also emerged, among several other such things. The inexorable march towards ever-increasing complexity continues to this day. We now grow crystals of complex materials in the laboratory, for applications in technology. Development of carefully patterned nanocomposites is another such activity.

For the agrocultural energy regime:

Energy source: Crops (requiring seeds, water, carbon dioxide, and solar light).

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathways: Various social and cultural activities of humans.

Chief drivers: Humans.

As argued by Niele, this description of the agrocultural regime must be supplanted with the socio-technological description. With the emergence of agriculture, the nomadic way of life gave way to a more sedentary settled-down lifestyle, leading to farms and villages.

Another life-style-changing invention was pottery. It must have been observed that materials used for making the hearth got hardened by the heat treatment. This discovery led to the invention of pottery-making. Several innovations like pots, dishes, and ovens followed. Application of the oven improved the cooking process. Use of ceramic pots for storage of various kinds of edible items increased their shelf life.

The observation of the effect of heat on material properties was the forerunner of the evolution of the empirical sciences. Invention of other metallurgical techniques followed. Innovations resulting from these inventions include cooking utensils, ornaments, and weapons. The increased economic diversity in goods and trade engendered barter trade.

Niele has listed the four anthroposystems of the agrocultural regime as:

practical know-how;
agricultural technology;
farming and bartering; and
farms and villages.

During this regime, humans developed the quality ‘to measure reality’. According to Niele, ‘a strong signal surged around circa 1250 to 1350 near the end of the Agrocultural Regime: this is termed the Quantificational Signal’. This signal touched all the anthroposystems, prompting ‘modern science, technology, business practice, and bureaucracy’ (Crosby 1997).

Another energy revolution, namely the carbo-energy revolution, occurred ~400 years ago when humans discovered a fuel other than wood, namely fossil fuel (coal, petroleum, natural gas). This marked the onset of the carbocultural energy regime. The fossil fuel had been created in the aerobic regime by the deposition of large volumes of dead biomass deep inside the Earth’s crust. This fossilization amounted to the conversion of carbohydrates of biological origin to mineral hydrocarbons.

Discovery of this new form of fuel resulted not just in its use in place of wood for burning, but led eventually to the development of the combustion engine. This development had truly far-reaching consequences. The engine converted heat to mechanical movement, resulting in locomotion, electricity production, etc.

The availability of energy in a convenient form (electricity) led to a whole new set of societal energy-dissipating structures and emergent phenomena, apart from a phenomenal growth in population and economies. Niele lists some of these developments as: Quantum mechanics, antibiotics, pop music, the world-wide web, man on the moon, cities, the United Nations, unions, buildings, vehicles, medicines, computer networks, mobile phones, etc.

The explosive growth in the exploitation of fossil fuels has resulted in a steady build up of the amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, which is now a cause for serious concern.

For the carbo-cultural energy regime:

Energy source: Fossil fuel plus oxygen.

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathway: Burning of fossil fuel in combustion

Chief drivers: Human activities.

The agro-cultural regime and the carbo-cultural regime also saw the emergence of wind power, solar power, hydroelectric power, and nuclear power. But none of these has yet risen to the level of ecological dominance for naming an energy period based on any of them.

On the socio-technological side, the carbocultural regime saw the grand alliance of science and crafts, giving rise to technology as we know it today. It is based largely on fossil fuels. Humankind progressed from ‘farms and villages’ to ‘cities and nations’.

Niele has identified the four anthroposystems of the carbocultural regime as:

reductionistic science;
conversion technology;
manufacturing and trading; and
cities and nations.

In the next post I shall discuss the 'Green Valley' approach being advocated by many for addressing the menacing 'ecological footprint' problem of the carbocultural regime.