Saturday, January 19, 2013

63. A Possible 'Heliocultural' Energy Regime

The currently dominant carbocultural energy regime is turning against itself by overshooting the carrying capacity of the habitat. This cannot go on, and a new energy regime must emerge. I discussed the possibility of a nucleocultural regime in Part 62. But if humans do not make that choice fully, what else is possible?

Niele (2005) has argued in favour of drawing inspiration from what was done by the blue-greens two billion years ago. They were the rulers of the phototrophic regime (cf. Part 57), just as we are the rulers of the current carbocultural regime. They went for a partnership, or symbiosis: The self-induced crisis of oxygen emission, which was poison for the blue-greens, was overcome by the evolution of a new type of cell: the eukaryotic cell, which had organelles limited by membranes. In the new (aerobic) regime, respiration provided the main fuel-burning mechanism: The atmospheric oxygen was conducive to the aerobes, but poison for the blue-greens. The evolution of a symbiotic ‘pact’ between oxygenic photosynthesis and aerobic respiration was at the heart of the oxo-energy revolution, resulting in the emergence of the aerobic regime. The eukaryotic cell design embodied sunlight-harvesting photosynthesis, as well as protection against oxygen toxicity.

A similar symbiosis can happen again, this time for saving man from the consequences of the loud and clear macroscopical signal of unsustainability. We may be heading for the emergence of the Symbian Man, who will effect a symbiosis of the various energy options. It will be a symbiosis of many things, born out of our perception that system Earth is one big complex superorganism.

It would be a symbiosis between:
  • Imperial man and Arcadian man.
  • Scientific reductionism and scientific holism; or simplicity and complexity.
  • Knowledge of natural disciplines and knowledge of cultural disciplines.
  • Anthropocentrism and ecocentrism.
  • 'Nature mastery' and 'back to Nature'.
  • Techno-scientific virtues and socio-ethical virtues.
Although energy from the Sun will form the backbone of this regime, there are other renewable-energy options also. To quote Smil: 'Beyond the fossil fuels the world can tap several enormous renewable flows: direct solar radiation and wind energy in the accessible layer of the troposphere are both several orders of magnitude larger than the current global total primary energy supply and they can be supplemented by hydroenergy and geothermal flows'. The watchword will be: sustainable energy.

The Symbian Man will consciously bring about the 'Heliocultural Energy Revolution' (Niele 2005). The aim will be to develop 'closed-loop' technologies enabling the solar-driven recycling of matter. Even wind energy is of solar origin. There will be partnerships or symbiotic relationships of all kinds: from local to regional to global, and emphasis will be on integrated and cascaded flows of renewable energy and recyclable matter.

The energy carriers will be green electricity, solar hydrogen, and green biofuels. 'The beauty of green biofuels is that Nature looks after carbon recycling through photosynthesis, with energy storage for free. And albeit efficiencies are relatively low, residues of food and wood production nevertheless grow. In the Sun Valley, socio-metabolisms could differ regionally with ecological circumstances and heliocultures. They show optimised configurations of large-, small- and also medium scale solutions . . ' (Niele 2005).

The Symbian approach favours distributed small-scale and decentralised medium-scale socio-metabolic sites and corresponding infrastructures.

To suppress the discharge of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the environment, the Symbian Man will seek to exploit geological and chemical sequestration.

An interesting aside regarding carbon dioxide is the large amount of this and other greenhouse gases released by cattle: They emit from both ends! Their population should be reduced. In fact, there is a strong case for reduction in the use of food products of animal origin. Their production is very energy-intensive, with a very large carbon footprint. Humans should move towards a larger use of foods of plant origin. Not to mention the fact that a voluntary and phased reduction of the total human population will also be an important step in the right direction.

Centralized/remote production or processing of electricity, drinking water, sewage, food, and fuels results in huge transportation and loss problems. Self-sufficient local communes with closed-loop economy are the answer. This will also help in the use of direct local use of heat produced in industrial processes, instead of first converting heat to electricity, transporting the electricity over long distances, only to convert it back to heat. All this would call for Symbian partnerships between governments, NGOs, universities, and R&D companies.

What we have at present are three possible approaches: the Green Valley, the Nuclear Valley, and the Sun Valley. There may be an evolutionary battle between the Arcadian Man, the Imperial Man, and the Symbian Man. Better still, a symbiosis may emerge wherein the best features of the Green Valley approach and the Nuclear Valley approach are adopted and subsumed in the Heliocultural Energy Regime.

The Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is an indicator of the shape of things to come.

Efforts are already afoot for spreading awareness regarding a variety of conservation measures. For example, a case is being made for 100% utilisation of 'wet waste' from kitchens for composting etc.


NB. From the next post onwards I shall take a break from the description of biological evolution of complexity, and move towards a discussion of artificial evolution. A major landmark in the biological-evolution story was the emergence of humans, with brains so advanced that they ultimately became aware of this evolution, courtesy Charles Darwin. Our brains have also made us develop computers with ever-increasing capabilities in terms of speed and computing power. And we have been investigating evolution using computer algorithms. We build computational models, and study evolution occurring inside a computer. This is artificial evolution because humans rather than natural processes are causing it. And we are evolving computer-based robots of ever-increasing sophistication. It is only a matter of time before the robots (our 'mind children') become superior to us in every respect. The possibilities are truly exciting, even grave. The least the public at large can do is to be aware of how it is being done, and what is at stake.