Friday, January 03, 2014

Thoughts On Climate Change, Delayed Suffering, and 7 Generations

Today I want to talk about responsible resource use, and share a thought that I recently had about how what we do today impacts future generations.  It may end up seeming like a somewhat disjointed post, as my thoughts keep shooting out in different directions that I feel are related... but I'll try to keep it sensible and make a solid point if I can.

The Law of the Conservation of Energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but that energy can changes forms and flow from one place to another within a system.  For example, a ray of sunshine might contain x calories of energy.  When that ray of sunshine hits the green leaf of a plant, through photosynthesis the plant converts the sunshine into x calories of carbohydrates.  The plant uses those carbohydrates to grow fruit to procreate or more leafy surface area to be able to capture more sunlight.  Along comes an herbivore (lets say a cow) that eats the leafy plant, and eventually converts the plant's carbohydrates into animal protein.  Now that cow contains the x calories of sunshine in the form of protein.  Finally, a human comes along and eats the cow, using the x calories of sunshine contained in the animal to plant a garden that has plenty of leafy green surface area to capture more rays of sunshine and start the process anew.

This simple (and yes, obviously, oversimplified) example demonstrates one cycle through which energy can flow... changing form and function each time, but always containing the same amount of energy, even if that energy is parsed out and spread around.  Generally, the only way for the energy in sunshine to leave the isolated system that is the Earth is if it is bounced directly back into space (as in when it hits a reflective surface like snow or ice) or through gradual heat loss via the upper atmosphere.  If the Earth had less of an atmosphere (or no atmosphere at all) and could not support lifeforms that could capture and use its energy, it would be a very barren place, like Mars or Mercury.  If the Earth had too thick of an atmosphere, and captured significantly more of the sun's energy in the atmosphere than it already does, it would heat up and become inhospitable to life as we know it, like Venus.

According to the biogenic theory of petroleum formation (which is the almost universally accepted theory about fossil fuel formation, and the one to which I choose to subscribe), millions (and possibly billions?) of years ago, plant life was capturing the energy in sunlight in much the same way as it does today (different plants, but same concepts).  That energy flowed around via the animal life at the time just like it does now, and eventually much of it "pooled" together underground and after much time and pressure from geological forces, became the petroleum we know and are addicted to today.  Essentially, a barrel of oil is hundreds if not thousands of years of stored and converted plant life, which really means hundreds or thousands of years of stored and converted sunshine.  The same is true for other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal... different geological circumstances lead to different forms, but they all derived from sunshine which was "captured" in the lifeforms of the day, which fossilized and was stored and converted over very long periods of time.

This leads me to the thought I had last summer, and how it got me thinking about a certain way energy flows through our systems, and how we choose to handle it.  Ultimately, it got me thinking about what impact our energy use will have on future generations, specifically 7 generations out from us, people we will never meet.  This is a very specialized case, and it doesn't hold up in all conditions, but it gave me a thought model that allowed me to project empathy 7 generations into the future.

My thought process started last summer in Portland.  My apartment was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, which for my partner Kelsey and I is borderline uncomfortable.  On a sunny day it can reach over 90 degrees in our apartment.  Kelsey and I have a small window fan that we turn on to try to blow the hot air out of our apartment's front (south-facing) window, and hopefully create draw through our bedroom (north facing) window to pull in the cool air on that side of the building.  It nominally works on most days, and during the hottest part of the day we can typically cool it down inside by a few degrees.  I've done no calculations, so pardon my rough estimations and guesswork, but I imagine that the energy required to run the fans in our house amounts to a one or two gallons of oil equivalent per year.  I would also estimate that a gallon of oil contains the accumulated energy of hundreds if not thousands of years worth of plant life.  This ancient plant life's carbon was converted via time and pressure to the fossil fuels that we are burning to generate the electricity that runs our fans.  The carbon in those fuels goes into the atmosphere somewhere, and stays there until it is recaptured (also known as sequestered) by some other plant life, as described by the carbon cycle.

So, we are burning thousands of years worth of stored energy in the form of plant carbon to cool our place temporarily, and that carbon is being released into the atmosphere.  Collectively as a species, we are burning millions of years of stored sunlight and releasing the carbon into the atmosphere each year.  That carbon only comes out of the atmosphere when captured by a plant through respiration, or by the ocean through similar processes described in the above link.  At the rate at which we are burning through the carbon, it is hard for the carbon cycle to keep up with us, and so more and more carbon dioxide is staying in the atmosphere.  I realize that for many people the theories of anthropocentric global warming and/or climate change are controversial... but it is indisputable that we're putting more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere all the time, and one only needs to look at Venus' atmosphere to admit that it could be a bad idea to pump known greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

So, finally, the "point" that my brain made to me that flipped a bit of a switch for me.  I do believe that humans are responsible for the warming trend our planet is experiencing, at least in part.  By burning fossil fuels in order to temporarily cool off my apartment, I am essentially saddling that heat onto my progeny.  Obviously the heat isn't 1:1, as I am just cooling off my apartment and the impact is spread out across the entire planet.  Unfortunately, much of the rest of the country and the developed world is also burning fossil fuels to try to cool off their abode, so it's a stronger impact on the future than just my apartment.  And the metaphor holds... in order to cool off my place, I'm heating up the future.  In order to cool off all of our places, we're heating up the world for our children and their children.  (I'm also aware that the elegance of this analogy breaks down when talking about wintertime rather than summertime, but it still struck me profoundly.)  By cooling myself now, I'm warming my children and grandchildren.  And, though a discussion of peak oil would make this post FAR too long, I believe that my descendants won't have the fossil resources to "control" their climate and cool themselves off that I now enjoy, especially since they'll need more of those fuels to bring themselves down to the same comfortable temperatures that I enjoy.  When this thought struck me, I went around the house and turned off the one light and the two fans that I was running.

Obviously, turning off the lights and the fans will do little to help the big picture, and it's not the whole solution.  And compared to most Americans, I'm doing pretty well with limiting my energy consumption, so getting it slightly lower by turning off the fan isn't even doing as much as it might sound like.  I take public transportation nearly exclusively, and I'm even reducing that as much as I can by riding my bike more and more.  Kelsey and I pay extra to offset our electricity use with electricity sourced entirely from renewable resources.  I haven't been able to find out exactly how it is that my electric company does this, but it's something.  So what else can I do?  What else can we all do to try to help?

As part of an answer, next Friday's blog post will resurrect an old series of mine about my Strategic Homesteading Goals.  This part of the series will be about my ideas for alternative housing, particularly how I plan to heat and cool my house.  If you haven't read part one, you can go to it here, and you'll be caught up enough to follow along on Monday.

As always, thanks for reading!

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