Saturday, January 22, 2011

Responsible use of resilient systems


Everything on Earth has always been here. Aside from the occasional satellite launch or meteorite strike it always will be. The Earth is a closed system to matter. It just gets moved around.
The Earth is an open system to energy. The planet absorbs energy from the sun at the same rate as it sends it out to the blackness of space, keeping the planet at a comfortable temperature. Plants use that energy to grow.
Animals that eat the plants are living indirectly on solar energy, and so are the predators that eat other animals.
Our species is brilliant and we have learned how to outcompete anything. We do what pleases us. We know how to take advantage of all sorts of resources. Our civilization has become wonderful in a great many ways.
Under normal circumstances the system is in balance. Nature uses any waste products as a source of food. Our way of life makes waste that nature can't use. This feels normal to us, but to the planet these aren't normal circumstances.
Ever since the industrial revolution we've become more and more adept at utilizing non-renewable resources for our short term gain. England was a leader for years because it ran out of wood and had to switch to coal. The US became a leader because it discovered cheap oil relatively early.
Fossil fuels reintroduce substances that have been sequestered out of the stable, resilient, natural balance. It can take a lot of abuse, but the scale on which we're unbalancing the system exceeds the capacity of the earth to absorb it.
As a closed system to matter, everything we put in the atmosphere and the ocean stays there. The natural carbon system is like a full bathtub, where water is being added exactly as fast as it can drain out the overflow. As we start adding more water the balance in the tub is off and we're going to overflow the tub.
As an open system to energy, we've adjusted the atmosphere so it absorbs more energy than it used to, disrupting the weather patterns that we have come to rely on, and everything that goes with it.
You've undoubtedly heard all of this before, and all of it simply is. There's no judgment or vilification of what we've done from on high. It's just the way things are. Physics is immune to argument or morality.
As long as we're living in a resilient system we can outcompete anything and protecting the resilience that's left in the system is in our own self interest. For that matter, exploiting all the resources as fast as we can is in our self interest too. We will do what pleases us. The question that remains is what will please us more.
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