Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Revisiting Malthus

I fought traffic to get Tara to physical therapy on time. I was grateful to get the one waiver for missing a slot on December 31.

Liberty Hall continues to play out. Some of its former tenants are now renting space alongside AFSC offices on Burnside, or perhaps were already. The Omega Party was one of three fundraisers aimed at paying off bills and closing up shop. This effort proved successful to within $100 of the final goal.

While in the waiting room, I read the June 2009 issue of National Geographic, the report on looming food shortfalls, and the consequent rising prices for staples.

The green revolution uses powerful chemistry and whole ecosystems go wrong if the associated pesticides and fertilizers get out of control and contaminate the water table, get into the food chain. This has already happened in parts of the Punjab.

These green revolution fertilizers and pesticides are in turn made from increasingly expensive fossil fuels. Farmers are unable to sustain their former practices. The investment banks are rolling up their sleeves again: it's still about agriculture, the first green revolution has only bought us some time.

Agriculture is the perennial number one news story for humans in Universe, as the photo-synthetics are the solar energy harvesters turning soil and gases into digestible nutrients. As mammals, we're not able to directly build bone and tissue from solar energy. We absorb amino acids and carbohydrates, directly or vicariously, from plants and phytoplankton -- the true meaning of bio-fuel (biomass, food).

Quoting Fuller:
1005.20 Biospherical Patterns: Here we see the interplay of all the biological systems wherein all the "life"-accommodating organisms of Earth's biosphere are exclusively regenerated by energy sent to Earth by radio from the energy broadcasting stars, but most importantly from the star Sun, by which design-science system the terrestrial vegetation and algae are the only energy radio-receiving sets.
This may seem like a dry technical lecture, but the point of the NG article is we can all become heavy meat eaters, and starve ourselves with an unsustainable lifestyle (unhealthy to boot), or we can go back to thinking of meat as the rare exception, not some staple to be consumed on more days than not.

Diet for a Small Planet is old news by this time. Getting protein through livestock is ten times less efficient than consuming it directly.

Our own household diet is moving in the right direction. Dairy is mostly gone, though I got some milk and eggs (the latter on sale today, only $2 for 18 per a bar coded coupon in the paper). We're mostly a squash, onion, bean, potato and rice family these days. There's some chicken in the freezer.

Lindsey is a highly trained ascetic and joined our ship's crew as a cook. She's teaching us more vegan habits, as well as greater frugality. I only dine out on special occasions, usually work related. Peanut butter, wheat bread, cereal (so yes, there's still some milk). I haven't had a steak in months if not years. That's close to bragging, but why boast about not engaging in self-destructive behavior (e.g. meat every night). Corn meal... pasta.

I'm not complaining here. My family is fortunate to have any food at all, given all what goes on in the GU (global university).

Back to Malthus: the National Geographic article says maybe he was right. If we expect to keep eating huge numbers of animals then maybe our only hope for salvation is genetic engineering, Monsanto doing GMOs. Is pie in the sky genetic science is going to save us from ourselves, as we pig out on pig? China bears the brunt of reader projections here, as we're treated to an extended view of pork-loving Chinese, the giant hog farms required, even though North Americans have an even larger per-capita carbon footprint.

Of course I'd like it better if some of this essential gardening could go on in somewhat high tech circumstances. Like Buzz and his Korean wife were agreeing, they'd like to keep using their low energy consumption toys, like cell phones. A domed-over community garden might double as a community, a school? A computer projector or HDTV doesn't consume a lot of power, yet we're still talking about electricity and that's not a big focus in this article, except as a power source for irrigation pumps.

The biggest brake on population growth in Fuller's world game modeling was increasing electrification. Interconnecting and expanding the various grids was his focus. Russian and American engineers might conspire to link grids across the Bering Strait, were the economics conducive (see Critical Path).

Regarding Malthus, I've been hard on what I call WMBS, echoing some complacency perhaps. As National Geographic makes clear, the situation is dire on this planet of mega slaughterhouses, huge mono-cultures. The more legume-based interweaving of nutrients, around Malawi I think it was, seemed a way less fossil fuel intensive route. We should ramp up on those ecovillages and plan to keep using Facebook. Electrification and agriculture, power consumption and climate control: these will remain my concerns. Yes music too.

I never dissed Malthus by the way, nor Darwin either. Go back and check.

The National Geographic article mentions the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also rock stars. The idea of having musical performances drive a fundraiser is a tested model and often works. There's a proposal in front of Multnomah's program committee to do one in March, open to the public, Quaker sponsored. This is about concurrency, running in parallel, not being too serial or sequential.

I'm allowing reader comments starting this year. Up until now, it's been Quaker journal = Blog, but Quaker journals don't traditionally come with comments. That's too atavistic though. As a concession to the present, I need to allow them. If it's blatantly a dog food commercial, I might snip it out.