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Excerpts: Energy, Ethics and Civilization

April 29, 2013 • Climate Change & Mitigation, Protection of Species, United States, Daily Email Recap

Excerpts: Energy, Ethics and Civilization

NOTE — link to full essay can be found here:

In 1922 Alfred Lotka (1880-1949) formulated his law of maximized energy flows: In every instance considered, natural selection will so operate as to increase the total mass of the organic system, to increase the rate of circulation of matter through the system, and to increase the total energy flux through the system so long as there is present and unutilized residue of matter and available energy.

The greatest possible flux of useful energy, the maximum power output (rather than the highest conversion efficiency) thus governs the growth, reproduction, maintenance, and radiation of species and complexification of ecosystems. The physical expression of this tendency is, for example, the successional progression of vegetation communities toward climax ecosystems that maximize their biomass within the given environmental constraints-although many environmental disturbances may prevent an ecosystem from reaching that ideal goal. In the eastern United States, an unusually powerful hurricane may uproot most of the trees before an old-growth forest can maximize its biomass. Human societies are, fundamentally, complex subsystems of the biosphere and hence their evolution also tends to maximize their biomass, their rate of circulation of matter, and hence the total energy flux through the system.

The trend toward higher energy throughputs has been universal, but the process has been proceeding at a very uneven pace, with affluent countries claiming disproportionate shares of modern energies…..

In order to keep the future global warming (climate disruption) within acceptable limits, concentrations of atmospheric CO2 should be kept below 500 ppm (they surpassed 394 ppm in 2012). That, of course, implies a necessity of limiting the future rate of fossil fuel combustion. Two much-discussed strategies commonly seen as effective solutions are energy conservation and massive harnessing of renewable sources of energy. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies offers a real solution…. Claims that simple and cost-effective biomass approaches could provide 50% of the world’s TPES by 2050 or that 1-2 Gt of crop residues can be burned every year would put the human appropriation of phytomass close to or above 50% of terrestrial photosynthesis. This would further reduce the phytomass available for microbes and wild heterotrophs, eliminate or irreparably weaken many ecosystemic services, and reduce the recycling of organic matter in agriculture. Only an utterly biologically illiterate mind could recommend such action. . . .

To read the full article, please click here:

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