Saturday, December 29, 2012

60. The Green-Valley Approach to System Earth

Nature never betray’d
The heart that loved her.
(William Wordsworth)

Speak not of peoples and laws and
Kingdoms, for the whole earth is
My birthplace and all humans are
My brothers.
(Khalil Gibran, Tears and Laughter)

As explained in the last few posts, there have been three energy cultures after we humans appeared on the scene: the pyroculture, the agroculture, and the present carboculture. But now a fourth one is in the offing. Why?

Humans in the carbocultural energy regime (cf. Part 59) are turning against themselves by exceeding the carrying capacity of the habitat. This is a good example of how history repeats itself sometimes, because something similar happened in the pyrocultural regime and the agrocultural regime as well. In the pyrocultural regime, when the overshooting of the carrying capacity of the habitat occurred, the Symbolisational Signal provided a new perception of reality, which enabled humans to increase the carrying capacity of the habitat by inventing agriculture. But in due course the agrocultural regime also reached a stage wherein the carrying capacity of the habitat was exceeded. Once again, another signal, namely the Quantificational Signal, provided the way out, in the form of exploitation of fossil fuels, heralding the emergence of the carbocultural energy regime.

We are now in the carbocultural regime, and there is a clear signal about another overshooting of the carrying capacity of the habitat. What we are now seeing is the Macroscopical Signal (Niele 2005).

The term ‘macroscope’ is an apt one. Its meaning is just the opposite of ‘microscope’. A microscope magnifies and shows detail at small length scales (a case of zooming in). A macroscope is a ‘symbolic instrument’ which combines data from various sources and presents the big picture in a way we can comprehend (a case of zooming out). de Rosnay (1979) introduced this tool for investigating highly complex systems. A variety of macroscopical signals are impinging on our consciousness, and are making us acutely aware of problems like the global warming.

Ecological footprint is another important term in this context. It is ‘the area of productive land and water that people need to support their consumption and to dispose of waste’. The macroscopical signal is telling us that our ecological footprint is overshooting the carrying capacity of the habitat, and this can be very dangerous.

Our response to this signal is not at all unanimous. Two broad viewpoints have been identified: The ‘imperial view’ and the ‘Arcadian view’ (Worster1994). The former is an aggressive approach, aiming to control Nature. The latter advocates humility in the face of forces of Nature, and aims at a life of harmony and peaceful coexistence with other creatures, advocating a reduction in the size of our current ecological footprint, so that long-term sustainability can be attained.

The imperial approach was advocated by the highly influential 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon. According to Worster (1994), ‘Bacon promised to the world a manmade paradise, to be rendered astonishingly fertile by science and human management. In that utopia, he predicted, man would recover a place of dignity and order, as well as authority over all the other creatures he once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Where the Arcadian naturalist exemplified a life of quiet reverence before the natural world, Bacon’s hero was a man of "Active Science", busy studying how he might remake nature and improve the human estate. Instead of humility, Bacon was all for self-assertiveness: "the enlargement of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible". . . "The world is made for man", he announced, "not man for the world"'. I shall discuss this approach in the next post.

The Arcadian Man believes that it is futile to try to conquer Nature, and that the most sensible thing to do is to live in harmony with it, and to ensure that all the other creatures with whom we share the Earth get their due share of the bounty. If this requires a reversal of the clock for shrinking our current ecological footprint, then so be it. The Arcadian Man has no use for nuclear energy, nanotechnology, or genetic engineering. Even economic growth must be arrested, even reversed, if it has a deleterious effect on the ecosphere.

The Arcadian Man aims at using solar power, and emulating Mother Nature in cycling matter in (nearly) closed loops, thus taking the carbocultural regime towards the 'Green Valley'. Four hundred years ago, at the start of the Carbian Period (cf. Part 56), the man-made emissions of carbon dioxide, resulting from the use of fossil fuels, were so small that they could be readily processed and absorbed by green plants by photosynthesis. But today these emissions have reached more than 24 Gtons per year, and natural processes can fix only a part of it into solid forms. Therefore, it is no longer tenable to go on following the practice of mostly ‘linear’ once-through conversion of natural resources into human waste. The Macroscopical Signal is loud and clear. We must resort to recycling matter in nearly- closed-loops metabolisms, so that the increasing burden on the ecosphere can be reversed.

Innovative means must also be found for sequestering the carbon dioxide gas released into the atmosphere. Some possibilities are: reforestation; chemical fixation; and injection into geological formations.

But is the Green Valley approach really the best thing to do? In the next few posts I shall discuss some alternative ideas, and then describe the symbiotic approach discussed by Niele (2005). He foresees the emergence of a 'heliocultural energy regime' as the panacea for our current and near-future ecological problems.