Fig. 1. Earth-space battery.The planet is a positive charge of stored organic chemical energy (cathode) in the form of biomass and fossil fuels. As this energy is dissipated by humans, it eventually radiates as heat toward the chemical equilibrium of deep space (anode). The battery is rapidly discharging without replenishment.
Oldspeak: I’ll let the scientists tell it:
“Earth is a chemical battery where, over evolutionary time with a trickle-charge of photosynthesis using solar energy, billions of tons of living biomass were stored in forests and other ecosystems and in vast reserves of fossil fuels. In just the last few hundred years, humans extracted exploitable energy from these living and fossilized biomass fuels to build the modern industrial-technological-informational economy, to grow our population to more than 7 billion, and to transform the biogeochemical cycles and biodiversity of the earth. This rapid discharge of the earth’s store of organic energy fuels the human domination of the biosphere, including conversion of natural habitats to agricultural fields and the resulting loss of native species, emission of carbon dioxide and the resulting climate and sea level change, and use of supplemental nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar energy sources. The laws of thermodynamics governing the trickle-charge and rapid discharge of the earth’s battery are universal and absolute; the earth is only temporarily poised a quantifiable distance from the thermodynamic equilibrium of outer space.
Although this distance from equilibrium is comprised of all energy types, most critical for humans is the store of living biomass. With the rapid depletion of this chemical energy, the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity. Because there is no substitute or replacement energy for living biomass, the remaining distance from equilibrium that will be required to support human life is unknown.
Eventually, without sufficient living biomass to run the biosphere, it simply doesn’t matter how much oil, solar, nuclear, etc. energy you have, as there is no biosphere left for humans to use it. Biomass is not an interchangeable energy. There is no replacement and we are depleting it rapidly.
As we burn organic chemical energy, we generate work to grow our population and economy. In the process the high-quality chemical energy is transformed into heat and lost from the planet by radiation into outer space. The flow of energy from cathode to anode is moving the planet rapidly and irrevocably closer to the sterile chemical equilibrium of space.
Unless biomass stores stabilize, human civilization is unsustainable.
The Earth is in serious energetic imbalance due to human energy use. This imbalance defines our most dominant conflict with nature. It really is a conflict in the sense that the current energy imbalance, a crisis unprecedented in Earth history, is a direct consequence of technological innovation.
Ironically, powerful political and market forces, rather than acting to conserve the remaining charge in the battery, actually push in the opposite direction because the pervasive efforts to increase economic growth will require increased energy consumption.”
–Dr. John R. Schramski et al. June 2015
“the earth is shifting back toward the inhospitable equilibrium of outer space with fundamental ramifications for the biosphere and humanity.”
You can say that again. Not a “doomer”, not a “Nihilist” that said that, but a good old fashioned, dyed in the wool and presumably conservative, scientist. As I’ve been saying for some time now. It’s just physics at this point. And the physics are SHITTY for probability of continued survival of humans and most other forms of complex life on Earth. As has been discussed here, humans are using ever increasingly unsustainable quantities of biomass. With no tenable plans for population control in place or even being discussed (every one has a right to babies dammit!), or sufficiently sustainable limits to biomass consumption, We can expect human population to increase in relation to depletion of biomass. Unfortunately for us, biomass is not infinite at current and future levels of consumption. We have used HALF the amount of biomass that it took billions of years to accumulate: 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass; in the last 2000 years. 10 percent of it in the last 100 years
. So energy consumption and energy depletion is increasing exponentially. This is unsustainable. Our technology and cleverness will not make everything ok this time. Our actions will likely make things worse. Yet we’re being driven maniacally, ceaselessly, to “do more”, to “fight climate change”, not understanding that every time we do something, we’re merely increasing our increasingly unsustainable and irreplaceable earth battery usage. And carbon footprint. Nothing we “do” can be done without plunging us further into ecological debt and destruction. That is what you call a conundrum Kimosabe. The technology many magical thinkers are trusting to “fix it”, requires tremendous amounts of resources and energy to produce and maintain. Resources and energy that are rapidly and unsustainably being depleted. In this stage of this mass extinction event, our “actions” serve only to hasten our extinction. Marches won’t stop it. Policy changes wont stop it. Geo-engineering won’t stop it. Hopium won’t stop it. We’re simply too far gone now. Can’t shift into reverse. One of the studies author’s said it best: “I call myself a realistic optimist, I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong, but I haven’t found it
.” Eventually Earth, the sacred battery upon which we depend inextricably for energy and life, will go dead. At some point shortly after that, we and most life on Earth will go extinct, and at some point in the distant future, the microbes inherit the Earth. And SCENE. Show’s over folk. Humans will be added to the geologic history pile of species that used to be here. It happens all the time. It’s the circle of life. Some times on, some times off. Read the actual Study if you can
. Good stuff in there.” -OSJ
Unless humans slow the destruction of Earth’s declining supply of plant life, civilization like it is now may become completely unsustainable, according to a paper published recently by University of Georgia researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged very slowly over billions of years,” said the study’s lead author, John Schramski, an associate professor in UGA’s College of Engineering. “The sun’s energy is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy much faster than it can be replenished.”
Earth was once a barren landscape devoid of life, he explained, and it was only after billions of years that simple organisms evolved the ability to transform the sun’s light into energy. This eventually led to an explosion of plant and animal life that bathed the planet with lush forests and extraordinarily diverse ecosystems.
The study’s calculations are grounded in the fundamental principles of thermodynamics, a branch of physics concerned with the relationship between heat and mechanical energy. Chemical energy is stored in plants, or biomass, which is used for food and fuel, but which is also destroyed to make room for agriculture and expanding cities.
Scientists estimate that the Earth contained approximately 1,000 billion tons of carbon in living biomass 2,000 years ago. Since that time, humans have reduced that amount by almost half. It is estimated that just over 10 percent of that biomass was destroyed in just the last century.
“If we don’t reverse this trend, we’ll eventually reach a point where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can no longer sustain us,” Schramski said.
Working with James H. Brown from the University of New Mexico, Schramski and UGA’s David Gattie, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, show that the vast majority of losses come from deforestation, hastened by the advent of large-scale mechanized farming and the need to feed a rapidly growing population. As more biomass is destroyed, the planet has less stored energy, which it needs to maintain Earth’s complex food webs and biogeochemical balances.
“As the planet becomes less hospitable and more people depend on fewer available energy options, their standard of living and very survival will become increasingly vulnerable to fluctuations, such as droughts, disease epidemics and social unrest,” Schramski said.
If human beings do not go extinct, and biomass drops below sustainable thresholds, the population will decline drastically, and people will be forced to return to life as hunter-gatherers or simple horticulturalists, according to the paper.
“I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics,” Schramski said. “These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”
Schramski and his collaborators are hopeful that recognition of the importance of biomass, elimination of its destruction and increased reliance on renewable energy will slow the steady march toward an uncertain future, but the measures required to stop that progression may have to be drastic.
“I call myself a realistic optimist,” Schramski said. “I’ve gone through these numbers countless times looking for some kind of mitigating factor that suggests we’re wrong, but I haven’t found it.”
The study, on “Human Domination of the Biosphere: Rapid Discharge of the Earth-Space Battery Foretells the Future of Humankind,” will be available online at www.pnas.org/content/early/recent the week of July 13.