In the 1970s, the corn sweetener industry saw trouble ahead. Some health-conscious Americans were consuming less of their diabetes-causing products, and that might become a popular trend. Most of their sales were during the summer, used to manufacture soda pop mostly consumed in hot weather. What could they do to increase sales in winter?
Meanwhile, the political green movement was growing. The children of the baby boom were raised to expect high levels of consumption, and vaguely understood that the planet could not support them with existing technology. Some chose voluntary simplicity, but most blamed the corporations and technologies that satisfied their demands, and assumed that there was a loophole in energy economics that would continue provide fuel for their flower-decaled vans and their motorized journeys to self-discovery. Math was hard, and not cool, and for nerds, so they assumed that they could find this loophole without it. The result was "alternative energy", a form of high consumption supplied by different corporations than the ones they chose to hate. "Ecology" became the name of a movement, rather than a highly mathematical science.
Meanwhile, agriculture was transforming into mega-industry. Very few people were willing to endure the long hours, backbreaking work, high accident rates, and poor remuneration of small farm agriculture, when there were so many well paying commercial jobs in the suburbs and cities. The landscape was transformed into giant automated farms run by huge corporations, and suburbs sprawled far from the cities and jobs. Fuel consumption for those commutes and those mega-farms soared. The economics of scale drove the mega-farms to mono-crops, with high fertilizer consumption, pesticides, and deep tilling of soils replacing the multi-year crop rotation cycles of the past. The land became more productive, which is good. But rather than return surplus land to nature, the farm corporations needed to find growing markets for their output.
Enter gasohol. Corn syrup can be fermented into ethanol and used as fuel. Not a very good fuel. Ethanol is hygroscopic (attracting water), less energy dense (meaning more weight per mile and more trips to the gas station), and corrosive to gaskets and seals in some engines. More importantly, the production of gasohol often consumes more energy than it produces. The low density and oxygenation of ethanol can reduce unburned hydrocarbon emissions in an engine tuned for it - but so can keeping a gasoline engine properly maintained and tuned. What gasohol really does is provide a comforting fable. We can keep consuming high levels of fuel, and not change our habits. We can torment evil automobile and petroleum companies, while helping out struggling small-plot farmers (like our great grandfather). It feels good, who cares what the math says? That's for nerds.
Between 2000 and 2005, fertilizer consumption in the midwest US increased by 50%, mostly from converting fallow land to corn ethanol production. Production per acre is maximized by soaking the fields in highly soluble phosphate fertilizers. While fertilizer is expensive, it is cheaper than the increased value of the extra crop produced. So the fields are run "phosphate rich", and the excess ends up in the Mississippi and the Gulf.
The result is massive eutrophic blooms, killing fish and destroying ecosystems. Algae populations can double in a day, while krill require months and fish years. The only organisms capable of consuming the massive blooms of fertilizer-fed algae are viruses, which spread rapidly in dense populations of single-celled hosts. The net effect of all the fertilization is a rain of dead algae to the bottom, carrying other nutrients with it. Every month, far more gulf life is damaged by the runoff from ethanol fuel production than was damaged by the gushing petroleum from the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Through the distortions of our Old McDonald fantasies, we've continued to divert engineering resources and responsible attention from the petroleum industry (decreasing oversight and increasing accidents) to the agriculture industry. We add to our conspicuous consumption with the solar cells and windmills on our roofs. The small farmers abandoned their farms (or lost them to bankruptcy, lacking the capital reserves of the mega-farm corporations) a generation ago. Their children work in offices now. Some of them are scientists developing the next generation of fertilizer-dependent ethanol-machine crops. Magnificent talent and honest compassion misapplied, because our large scale goals go unexamined.
It is good to grow more food on less land. Much of the developing world needs those calories, and wild nature needs the land back. But we have no economic path to return land to nature. Until we find ways for individuals to express their status by restoring wilderness, they will continue to consume expensive and ecologically-devastating "green" products. Until math becomes fashionable, we will continue to be lousy natural accountants.
Old McDonald versus the Rhizosphere
10,000 years ago, atmospheric CO2 levels were 180ppm and dropping. 110 years ago, the CO2 level was 280ppm and rising. I would love to see CO2 measurements in between. The world in 1900 was relatively unindustrialized compared to 1920 or 1950 or 2000. The fact that the CO2 levels did not inflect upwards with dramatic slope changes ("hockey stick") following the enormous increase in industry after World War 1 tells us something about anthropogenic causes. Agriculture has been modifing CO2 levels for millenia.
I am learning something about the "rhizosphere", the root system of the world's land plants. CO2 levels in the soil are 10 to 500 times higher than in the air, and much of that CO2 forms carbonic acid. That and other root-generated acids aggressively break down rock, releasing nutrients (like phosphorus) and sequestering CO2 as carbonate rock. Carbonate rock is a major long term carbon sink, storing vastly more carbon than the ocean, which in turn holds far more carbon than the atmosphere.
This makes me wonder about the different root behavior of wild plants versus food crops. Many perennial wild plants reach down to rock, slowly etching out the phosphorus and other minerals, sequestering CO2. Do annual food plants reach down that far? When we supply food plants with fertilizer, does that make their root systems more shallow, not engaging in the deep rock surface processes used by the wild plants preceding them to bring nutrients to the surface and dispose of CO2?
While we must rethink the CO2-releasing mechanical technologies that we've built over the past century, we must also look much deeper into our agricultural past and the planting, tilling, and fertilizing technologies with which we feed ourselves. Modern agriculture rests on a rapidly dwindling supply of rock phosphate, which replaced the exhausted sources of guano fertilizer popularized by Humboldt only 200 years ago.
With hundreds of years worth of coal and gas shale, we can (foolishly?) continue carbon fuel extraction for a long time. But what happens when we run out of cheap phosphorus, especially if we replace wild habitat with "fuel crops" with shallow roots and a huge appetite for fertilizer? If fertilizer gets too expensive, and crop yields plummet, will we eat up even more wild habitat for agriculture? Will "peak food" happen long before peak oil?
- Where can I learn more about the rhizosphere and deep root structures?
- How do wild plants and perennials differ from annuals in the depth of their roots, the weathering and carbonation of deep rock, and the extraction of phosphorus from it?
- What are the consequences of our transformation of the world's plants?
- Do high yield crop varieties expend less energy on shallower roots?
There are a lot of question marks in the above. I hope there are encouraging answers to all of them. But our demonization of mineral and machine sources of CO2, and the messianic pursuit of agricultural "green" fuel sources, may be moving us from a big problem to an insurmountable one. Just because Old McDonald had a farm, and CO2 was lower in his day, does not mean that we can survive into the deep future using his traditional practices.
The Energy/Computation Cure
While sources of abundant energy could lead to even more wasteful consumption, it is possible to use it for three very good things: modelling and analyzing nature, sharing the results with the world, and remediating the damage we've done so nature can recover. We can develop social networks to trumpet our ecological good deeds, while permitting others to scrutinize our claims and embarrass us if our ecological accounting is bogus. True scientific ecology is primarily accounting, and we can expand the spreadsheet to include human status games.
With high levels of computation and global connection, we can automate more of our mega-farm machinery. Without a high-dollars-per-hour human riding a machine, we can run it more slowly, 24x7, consuming less fuel. We can use many more smaller machines, more frequently, and take better care of our crops, for example directly injecting micro-doses of fertilizer directly to their roots. If the machines can connect to cellular communication networks, and download instructions and observation templates from server sky computation farms, they don't have to be very smart, only flexible. Ant colonies have been running farms with networks of tiny ant brains for eons. We can learn to do the same, aided by global awareness down to the nano-economic level. Indeed, we might even learn ways to recruit actual ant colonies into our intelligence networks, increasing abundance for both humans and insects.
We can monitor and analyze vastly more data, and flexibly adjust growth rates to match market projections. We can replace "impulse" agriculture with "flow" agriculture. We can even use slow, high automation vehicles for the entire food flow, sending fresh food from field to table without stops in warehouses and stores, while providing consumers with the information and automation they need to prepare their meals with minimum waste.
Hold out your hand, and an apple appears in it, the result of a process beginning in an orchard days ago and hundreds of miles away. Because there are millions of hands like yours, only the last stage of the trajectory needs to anticipate your desire, with redirection paths that can divert that apple to other consumers, pie and juice makers, also automated and widely distributed. Somewhere, within minutes and a mile of you, is someone else who can use that apple if you don't want it now. The more slowly but relentlessly that apple moves, the more efficiently it can be provided, without unwanted apples rotting in the trash.
There is not enough human attention to directly manage all this. We can use our machines to scrutinize nature for ideas and adaptions we can recreate in our artifacts. We must design systems to amplify our attention, so we can devote more attention to correcting defects and eliminating inefficiencies and waste. Proper design and robust automation means solving a problem once, then moving on to new problems. We will never run out of problems. Wouldn't it be nice to spend our problem-solving time finding new ways to harmonize with nature, rather than fudging the accounts so our ecological embezzlings remain hidden for a few more years? Wouldn't it be grand if we devoted our attention to freeing the attention of others from machine-like tasks, helping all humans become the teachers and artists and scientists and inventors that billions of years of evolution has enabled us to become?