Primary Energy

27 08 2018

The internet is constantly bombarded with articles about how we need to go (or even ARE going) 100% renewable energy and get rid of fossil fuels…… now don’t get me wrong, I completely agree, it’s just that these people have no idea of the repercussions, nor of the size of the task at hand….)

Renewable energy zealots even believe that as more and more renewables are deployed, fossil fuels are being pushed out of the way, becoming irrelevant. Seriously.

Nothing of the sort is happening. In a recent article, Gail Tverberg wrote this…:

Of the 252 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE) energy consumption added in 2017, wind ADDED 37 MTOE and solar ADDED 26 MTOE. Thus, wind and solar amounted to about 25% of total energy consumption ADDED in 2017. Fossil fuels added 67% of total energy consumption added in 2017, and other categories added the remaining 8%. [my emphasis on added…]

To put this in a graphic way, look at this…..

primary energy

Primary energy consumption has almost trebled since 1971, and renewables still only account for 2%…… while oil coal and gas has grown as a total percentage at the expense of nuclear. And…..  surprise surprise, OIL! Nothing to do with Peak Oil I suppose……

There is simply no way renewables will ever replace fossil fuels. California, with the aim of going 100% renewables doesn’t even have the necessary land available for the purpose according to some recent research…….

Last year, global solar capacity totaled about 219,000 megawatts. That means an all-renewable California would need more solar capacity in the state than currently exists on the entire planet. Sure, California can (and will) add lots of new rooftop solar over the coming decades. But Jacobson’s plan would also require nearly 33,000 megawatts of concentrated solar plants, or roughly 87 facilities as large as the 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar complex now operating in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah, which covers 5.4 square miles, met fierce opposition from conservationists due to its impact on the desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species under the federal and California endangered species acts.

Wind energy faces similar problems. The Department of Energy has concluded in multiple reports over the last decade that no matter where they are located — onshore or offshore — wind-energy projects have a footprint that breaks down to about 3 watts per square meter.

To get to Jacobson’s 124,608 megawatts (124.6 billion watts) of onshore wind capacity, California would need 41.5 billion square meters, or about 16,023 square miles, of turbines. To put that into perspective, the land area of Los Angeles County is slightly more than 4,000 square miles — California would have to cover a land area roughly four times the size of L.A. County with nothing but the massive windmills. Turning over even a fraction of that much territory to wind energy is unlikely. In 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in unincorporated areas. Three other California counties — San Diego, Solano and Inyo — have also passed restrictions on turbines.

Last year, the head of the California Wind Energy Assn. told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “We’re facing restrictions like that all around the state…. It’s pretty bleak in terms of the potential for new development.”

Don’t count on offshore wind either. Given the years-long battle that finally scuttled the proposed 468-megawatt Cape Wind project — which called for dozens of turbines to be located offshore Massachusetts — it’s difficult to imagine that Californians would willingly accept offshore wind capacity that’s 70 times as large as what was proposed in the Northeast.

To expand renewables to the extent that they could approach the amount of energy needed to run our entire economy would require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects. Organizations like 350.org tend to dismiss the problem by claiming, for example, that the land around turbines can be farmed or that the placement of solar facilities can be “managed.” But rural landowners don’t want industrial-scale energy projects in their communities any more than coastal dwellers or suburbanites do.

The grim land-use numbers behind all-renewable proposals aren’t speculation. Arriving at them requires only a bit of investigation, and yes, that we do the math.

“Without coal we won’t survive”. Yet coal will/could kill us all. It’s the difference between a problem and a predicament…. problems have solutions, predicaments need management. Here’s a trailer of a movie soon to be released….
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The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

8 08 2018

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.

There are pictures of masses of dead fish on the surface of the stream. Some eyewitnesses reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream, dead from drinking contaminated water. It was the third such incident in the space of seven years in an area which has seen a sharp rise in mining activity, including operations run by BYD, the world’ biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. After the second incident, in 2013, officials closed the mine, but when it reopened in April 2016, the fish started dying again.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Workers drill though the crust of the world’s biggest salt flat with large rigs. They are aiming for the brine underneath swathes of magnesium and potassium in the hope of finding lithium-rich spots. Since the 2000s, most of the world’s lithium has been extracted this way, rather than using mineral ore sources such as spodumene, petalite and lepidolite

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.

But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.

Tahua, Bolivia. Salt miners load a truck with lithium-rich salt. The ground beneath Bolivia’s salt flats are thought to contain the world’s largest reserves of the metal. (The Bolivian Andes may contain 70 per cent of the planet’s lithium.) Many analysts argue that extracting lithium from brine is more environmentally friendly than from rock. However, as demand increases, companies might resort to removing lithium from the brine by heating it up, which is more energy intensive.

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

In South America, the biggest problem is water. The continent’s Lithium Triangle, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its otherworldly salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. That’s a real issue, because to extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.

Then they leave it to evaporate for months at a time, first creating a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and so on. After between 12 and 18 months, the mixture has been filtered enough that lithium carbonate – white gold – can be extracted.

It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.

There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

Rio Grande, Bolivia. An aerial view of the mineral formations along the Rio Grande delta, at the edges of the salt flats. The delta is mostly dry due to the effects of lithium mining, which is heavily reliant on water for its shallow artificial salt-pans, or solar evaporation ponds, in which saline solutions are left to dry out over a period of months, leaving the minerals behind. This drying out of the delta has led to a lack of stability in water levels, both on top of and below the surface. The river is home to a wide variety of freshwater fish, many originating in the Amazon basin

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries. It is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future, albeit through a very energy-intensive process.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Lino Fita, head of potassium extraction for mining company Comibol, looks out over his factory. The brine in this region is rich with potassium and magnesium, which makes it harder and more expensive to extract lithium. The brine is put in large ponds for many months to evaporate excess water and separate its salts. The remaining compound is then purified and processed. Very few lithium-processing experts work in the factory, as there is a nationwide shortage of staff. In the past, as few as three people have run the factory’s entire production line

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more in danger of creating a bottleneck in the move towards electric vehicles, and at a potentially huge environmental cost. Cobalt is found in huge quantities right across the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa, and hardly anywhere else. The price has quadrupled in the last two years.

Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

“One of the biggest challenges with cobalt is that it’s located in one country,” he adds. You can literally just dig up the land and find cobalt, so there’s a very strong motivation to dig it up and sell it, and a a result there’s a lot of motivation for unsafe and unethical behaviour.” The Congo is home to ‘artisanal mines’, where cobalt is extracted from the ground by hand, often using child labour, without protective equipment.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Brine is pumped out of a nearby lake into a series of evaporation ponds and left for 12 to 18 months. Various salts crystallise at different times as the solution becomes more concentrated. It is also treated with lime to remove traces of magnesium. When the minerals are ready for processing, they are taken to the nearby Planta Li lithium factory to produce the ions that will go into batteries. In 2017, the factory produced 20 tonnes of lithium carbonate

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

There’s also a political angle to be considered. When Bolivia started to exploit its lithium supplies from about 2010, it was argued that its huge mineral wealth could give the impoverished country the economic and political heft that the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. “They don’t want to pay a new OPEC,” says Lisbeth Dahllöf, of the IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, who co-authored a report last year on the environmental footprint of electric car battery production.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Yushin and his co-authors argued that new battery technology needs to be developed that uses more common, and environmentally friendly materials to make batteries. Researchers are working on new battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.

But, if new batteries are less energy dense or more expensive than lithium, they could end up having a negative effect on the environment overall. “Assessing and reducing the environmental cost is a more complex issue than it initially appears,” says Valimaki. “For example, a less durable, yet more sustainable device could entail a larger carbon footprint once your factor in transportation and the extra packaging required.”

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Graves such as this one are a common sight on the salt flats. The area has experienced very little rainfall over the last two years, which has affected the lives of local quinoa farmers. The lithium plants, which use vast amounts of water, have exacerbated shortages: in locations such as Pastos Chicas, near the Argentina/Chile border, additional water had to be shipped in from elsewhere to meet demand

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

At the University of Birmingham, research funded by the government’s £246m Faraday Challenge for battery research is trying to find new ways of recycling lithium-ion. Research in Australia found that only two per cent of the country’s 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion waste was recycled. Unwanted MP3 players and laptops can end up in landfill, where metals from the electrodes and ionic fluids from the electrolyte can leak into the environment.

A consortium of researchers, led by the Birmingham Energy Institute are using robotics technology developed for nuclear power plants to find ways to safely remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There have been a number of fires at recycling plants where lithium-ion batteries have been stored improperly, or disguised as lead-acid batteries and put through a crusher.

Xiangtan, China. Workers on the production line at Soundon New Energy, a huge lithium-ion battery company in eastern China. Most electric vehicles in use today are yet to reach the end of their cycle. The first all-electric car to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, the Tesla Roadster, made its market debut in 2008. This means the first generation of electric vehicle batteries have yet to reach the recycling stage

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Because lithium cathodes degrade over time, they can’t simply be placed into new batteries (although some efforts are underway to use old vehicle batteries for energy storage applications where energy density is less critical). “That’s the problem with recycling any form of battery that has electrochemistry – you don’t know what point it is at in its life,” says Stephen Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones is not cost effective. You get this sort of soup.”

Another barrier, says Dr Gavin Harper of the Faraday Institution’s lithium recycling project, is that manufacturers are understandably secretive about what actually goes into their batteries, which makes it harder to recycle them properly. At the moment recovered cells are usually shredded, creating a mixture of metal that can then be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques – burning. But, this method wastes a lot of the lithium.

Linyi County, China. A production line at Chinese electric-car company ZD, in Linyi County. The company’s small, urban electric two-seaters are made exclusively for the Italian market, where ZD has a joint-venture company Share’ngo, a car-sharing startup in Milan. China is the world’s largest electric car manufacturer, and over the past few years, the country has been looking to increase the number of countries it exports to

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

UK researchers are investigating alternative techniques, including biological recycling where bacteria are used to process the materials, and hydrometallurgical techniques which use solutions of chemicals in a similar way to how lithium is extracted from brine to begin with.

For Harper, it’s about creating a process to shepherd lithium-ion batteries safely through their whole lifecycle, and making sure that we’re not extracting more from the ground unnecessarily, or allowing chemicals from old batteries to do damage. “Considering that all of the materials in these batteries have already had an environmental and social impact in their extraction, we should be mindful of ensuring good custody,” he says.





Call of the Reed Warbler – Charles Massy in conversation with Costa Georgiadis

6 08 2018

I have a new hero……. forget renewable energy, the next revolution will be, must be, regenerative farming…..  or we are truly stuffed.

Charles Massy OAM Author and radical farmer’s new book ‘Call of the Reed Warbler’ explores transformative and regenerative agriculture and the vital connection between our soil and our health. According to Massy, we need a revolution — he believes that human health, our communities, and the very survival of the planet depend on it. Charles is coming to the Library to talk about how he believes a grassroots revolution can save the planet, help turn climate change around, and build healthy people and healthy communities, pivoting significantly on our relationship with growing and consuming food.

Charles is in conversation with Costa Georgiadis, nature lover and host of ABC’s Gardening Australia. Filmed: State Library of New South Wales, Sat 9 Dec 2017 Supported by: The Saturday Paper, Friendly Farms





Sustainability lost…….

30 07 2018

Two weeks ago, I left my cocoon in Geevo and flew to Queensland for the first time in over two years…  and no, I will not be driving back in another ute!  Glenda was supposed to join me in Tasmania around now, but, as they say, life puts paid to the best laid plans, and her mother now aged 94 had a fall, breaking her wrist and fracturing her pelvis, never a good idea at such a ripe old age.

My flight was delayed for over an hour, and I didn’t arrive in Brisbane until past 11PM, then Virgin put my luggage on the wrong carousel, while my son was waiting outside to take me to his new place he shares with his partner and one other in a new apartment near the river. I’d heard all about this apartment, especially the bit about going from student poverty to working man riches…. but the view is so stunning, I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all a dream! I never thought I’d think of our son as “how the other half lives”!

IMG_20180714_110732

He might as well enjoy it while he can I guess, they have to live somewhere, and it’s sited unbelievably close to public transport.

I brought the cold weather with me it appeared, my first morning there was the coldest Queensland had experienced in a very long time; mornings were actually several degrees less cold in Geeveston, though of course it never warmed up to 20 degrees at the Fanny Farm.

The hustle and bustle of “the big smoke” always shocks me after the quiet life in Southern Tasmania, even though I lived in Brisbane for decades, and I of all people should not be shocked after writing reams about the unsustainability of our civilisation…. but it nevertheless brings it all home to me.

What was also brought home to me is the unsustainability of keeping old people alive, using world best practice technology of course….. This is, like population, a very ticklish issue that nobody talks about. I’m almost thirty years younger than my mother in law, and I have already come to grips with the fact my days are numbered, even if they are not quite as numbered as hers, but the amount of resources, money, and energy spent on keeping her alive for what may not be more than three months is staggering…….

How anyone measures what is or is not appropriate to keep a very old person comfortable is anyone’s guess. Can anyone even pass judgement? We do what we do, as my old friend Bruce once said to me, because we can. It’s how I flew up at short notice. Speaking of noticing, airfares have gone up 50% since last time I did this….

The flurry of activity since Betty’s return from hospital is amazing. A new ramp that probably cost $3000 has been built so her wheelchair can accommodate the single step difference between the house floor and the ground outside. We’ve had physios, occupational therapists and a social worker call to assess the situation. Tomorrow, ‘a builder’ is coming to install a hook for Betty’s shower, presumably so she can be showered sitting down….. and I have no idea who’s paying for all this.

A couple of days ago, she suddenly became quite ill, an ambulance was called, and I had to follow it all the way to Nambour Hospital (and of course return), a 100km trip. Luckily, she was transferred to Noosa which is just ten minutes away, but all the same, the amount of driving I am currently undertaking as the nominated driver is amazing. It’s a good thing Glenda’s little car runs on the smell of fumes because this amount of driving is easily four times as much as I am used to!

Trained as I am by my INTJ personality to only see the amount of energy and resources needed to achieve these results, I feel like I have actually flown to a different planet. Then there’s the traffic…..  and it’s not just me, friends I have since spoken to agree that congestion around Noosa is definitely on the up, and every second car is a SUV…. This place used to be a sleepy village, but no more.

I also feel like I have lost control of what I eat. I haven’t managed to find a decent loaf of bread yet. Everything I buy is cheaper than what I’m used to, but it’s all wrapped in plastic…. and I hate it. I’ve even put on two kilos since largely going off my high protein diet to fit in with everybody else and eating cake and biscuits with visitors celebrating the old lady’s 94th birthday……

But I had to do this, my poor wife is carrying quite a burden, and she needed the moral support, and by doing things around the place to keep the show running, she has more time to spend nursing her mother……

Since leaving Geevo, the weather has been doing its Tasmanian winter thing, lots of rain, mud everywhere, unlike here which is just like a Tasmanian summer; it’s unlikely I would have been able to do much around the farm anyway. Plus it stops me working on the house before my concrete reaches maximum strength… and building roofs in the rain is problematic at best.monster house

While here, I watched some stupid TV show about “Extreme Homes” that featured Far North Queensland houses, all so far over the top I was stunned….  but one in particular stood out.  Here I am, feeling guilty about the 80 m³ of concrete I have now poured into Mon Abri, and this place comes up boasting, wait for it, 15,000 m³ of concrete……. I’m actually really really hoping it’s misreporting, and that maybe it was tonnes (each m³ of concrete weighs 2.5 tonnes). This monster house has apparently no timber whatever in it and is capable of withstanding category 5 cyclones. With 18kW (!) of PVs on its roof, the program classified it as zero energy house……. never mind the fact that this much concrete would emit nearly 20,000 tonnes of CO2 or 2000 years worth of emissions from your average Australian.

When stupidity like this is spread on TV to people who will certainly believe it, what chance have we got? This will make more and more people, probably, aspire to building some similar monument to unsustainability…..

world on fire

Meanwhile, the Earth is burning, or where it’s not burning, it’s flooding, like Japan which just finished dealing with floods and landslides and is now facing a severe typhoon….

climate variability.jpg

This diagram of how the climate statistics are changing just came up in my news feed. It pays to understand standard distribution curves I guess, but it’s a good explanation of what we’ll be facing in the future.

I may stay in Queensland for another two weeks, but any longer will make me go mad. At least in Tassie I can sort of pretend I won’t be affected, and stick my head back in the sand. Everybody else is doing it….

 

 





Are NEW Chinese buildings really FALLING DOWN?

16 07 2018

Years ago, I remember hearing Nicole Foss saying that those Chinese ghost towns we have all heard about were never built to last; they were built to be finished so the builders could get paid by the government, and to hell with durability……

Well you would not believe how bad it actually is……  and to think that China consumed more cement over a recent three year period than the US consumed during the entire 20th century, for results like this, is simply appalling…. and it’s fast looking like it was all wasted.

ChineseCementDemand2011-2013

Australia’s economy utterly relies on China’s, and China’s is not looking too good now, especially after you watch the video below……. Nicole wrote this way back in 2011..:

Vulnerable Commodity Exporters

Commodity exporting nations, which were insulated from the effects of the 2008 financial crisis by virtue of their ability to export into a huge commodity boom, are indeed feeling the impact of the trend change in commodity prices. All are uniquely vulnerable now. Not only are their export earnings falling and their currencies weakening substantially, but they and their industries had typically invested heavily in their own productive capacity, often with borrowed money. These leveraged investments now represent a substantial risk during this next phase of financial crisis. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, are all experiencing difficulties:

Known as the Kiwi, Aussie, and Loonie, respectively, all three have tumbled to six-year lows in recent sessions, with year-to-date losses of 10-15%. “Despite the fact that they have already fallen a long way, we expect them to weaken further,” said Capital Economists in a recent note. The three nations are large producers of commodities: energy is Canada’s top export, iron ore for Australia and dairy for New Zealand. Prices for all three commodities have declined significantly over the past year, worsening each country’s terms of trade and causing major currency adjustments.

China – Not Just Another BRIC in the Wall

More than anything, the story of both the phantom recovery and the blow-off phase of the commodity boom, has been a story of China. The Chinese boom has quite simply been an unprecedented blow-out the like of which the world has never seen before:

China has, for years now, become the engine of global growth. Its building sprees have kept afloat thousands of mines, its consumers have poured billions into the pockets of car manufacturers around the world, and its flush state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have become de facto bankers for energy, agricultural and other development in just about every country. China holds more U.S. Treasuries than any other nation outside the U.S. itself. It uses 46% of the world’s steel and 47% of the world’s copper. By 2010, its import- and export-oriented banks had surpassed the World Bank in lending to developed countries. In 2013, Chinese companies made $90-billion (U.S.) in non-financial overseas investments.

If China catches a cold, the rest of the world won’t be sneezing – it will be headed for the emergency room.

There’s more to read about this on the Automatic Earth here….. an old article, but more relevant than ever.





Eating for a Better World

15 07 2018

Many thanks to Jacqueline who found this excellent “must read” piece on our farming predicaments….. Since buying a farm myself, I am totally convinced everything written here is accurate, and that until people wake up to themselves about this, we will continue on our road to the edge of the cliff with everyone arguing about how much faster we should be going….

Lifted from this excellent website….

“The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”
—Teju Cole

It is not surprising that there are growing numbers of vegans and vegetarians worldwide who are becoming dogmatic about their food choices. Many aspects of the hyper-synthetic cityscapes we inhabit are disorienting to mammals such as ourselves. Over the last hundred years, our food systems have undergone drastic change. Food — that basic, life-igniting, community-building element — has become completely outsourced, processed, industrialized, and bland. Worse, animals are distorted and abused beyond recognition to produce it.

The meat we come across in cities looks less and less like a part of the animal it came from, and more like another factory product packaged in layers of thick plastic. We have become detached from the mutualistic relationships we have formed with animals over thousands of years. We are conceptually isolated from trophic cascades. Eating animals in this context surely feels like cheating, since the only models we have for our relationships with them are our relationships with other people.

One by one, city dwellers awaken to the fact that their chicken no longer tastes or looks like chicken and that their bodies are dulled by the meat of the crippled, hormone- and antibiotic-stuffed animals we breed. They begin to feel a visceral, intellectual, and moral repulsion towards the animal products that everyone eats so flippantly.

The slaughtering of animals used to take place within a relationship. There was little room for cowardice, since the act of killing was personal. The hunter looked into the eyes of the deer and was changed by that gaze. The farmer lived in close proximity with her cattle and understood that her own well-being depended on that of her animals. The cook knew how to calm her chicken before she twisted its neck, and let no part of the animal go to waste. The shepherd risked his life to defend his herd. Everyone who ate was intimate with the cycles that brought food to the plate. Ritual mediated relationships, providing for a way for people to both honor and eat the world around them.

Now we are divorced from these processes. Veganism is another reaction to this isolation, and indeed could have only emerged within it.

An urbanite looking for alternatives easily comes across veganism, a mainstream option made attractive through popular books and films and charming cafes in every major city. When continuing to eat feedlot meat and eggs from enslaved chickens becomes impossible, veganism beckons with a practicable solution. But subjective health claims and moral appeals that harness the disgust response too often blind vegans to the many nuances that determine our food culture. It can also blind them to more exciting, systemic antidotes to the plethora of fatal faults in our food systems.

Agriculture that is running off a cliff

Industrial agriculture has wrought many miracles. It has allowed developed countries to produce more food on less land and with fewer people. But it has achieved this wonder by making fertilizer and pesticides out of fossil fuels, eroding topsoil, and reducing the variety of plants in our diet. In other words, we are paying for our cheap food and our disconnection from the land with degraded landscapes and monotony.

Most plants for human consumption today are grown in monocultures. The first step to making a monoculture is to strip a plot of land of its community of plants and animals. This rich web of life is replaced by a single species — a high-yield crop — and every other organism is policed out of the perimeter by chemical and mechanical aggression. The soil, shorn of its cover, languishes and the microorganisms and fungi within it perish. The carbon formerly contained in the soil is released into the atmosphere. To make this impoverished medium keep producing, farmers are obliged to inject it with massive amounts of synthetic nitrogen, a fertilizer that is manufactured from natural gas. So much gas now escapes from fracking sites that it makes ruminants’ emissions pale into insignificance.

The fertilizer then runs off the beaten land into waterways and oceans, where it destabilizes natural ecosystems, rendering them practically barren. Our planet’s oceans are pockmarked by 146 of these dead zones where marine life has been completely choked out.

Photo credit: Wageningen University

Harnessing the genius of nature

But there is another way of doing agriculture, one that turns organic waste into fertilizer and builds soil rather than eroding it. It goes by many names, but we like to call it regenerative agriculture, because it is a way of eliciting food from the land while simultaneously enhancing its ability to produce food for us in the future. It requires fewer inputs but more intelligence. In this sort of system, the farmer is not an industrial conqueror, forcing food from the land until it gives up in exhaustion. Instead, the farmer observes nature and the tendencies of the land. With this knowledge, she leverages its genius, tilting natural ecosystems this way or that to both make them richer and ensure that they produce yields that humans can eat.

These yields are more nutrient dense and often more delicious than their conventional counterparts, coming as they do from vibrant communities of plants and animals expressing their nature in concert. These production systems, when properly managed, regenerate the soil, endowing it with higher quantities of minerals such as magnesium and calcium, which are then transported by fruits, vegetables, and meat into our bodies.

This portrait of food production may sound fantastical, but it is in fact in the mould of nature, which has no trouble making something from nothing, and where thriving ecosystems become more verdant and diverse over time. However, if we want to stick around for the feast on this warming planet, we need to find ways to produce our food that are as generative and enduring. Were it implemented widely, regenerative farming could capture more carbon dioxide than we emit, as demonstrated by the Rodale Institute. So in addition to providing food for human consumption, agriculture plays a central role in addressing climate change.

As it happens, animals are essential to many — if not all — of the cleverest systems that humans have devised for deriving food from landscapes while preserving them. Just as animals are keystones in the rainforest and the wild grasslands, they vitalize agricultural processes as well.

On farms that produce crops, it makes a lot of sense to keep animals that can convert vegetable waste into protein-dense food. In turn, their manure fertilizes crops and their pecking can aid pest control, reducing the need for industrial inputs. Animals raised in this manner have the opportunity to graze on good pastures, enjoy social lives, breathe fresh air, and bathe in the light provided by our star, all while making agriculture more sustainable.

In some geographies, the best way to support the richness of the land and produce food is not by imposing crops, but by properly managed grazing. If the land is water-restricted, the most sensible way to make food is often to use ruminants to convert grass — which humans cannot eat — into nutrient-dense food. This leaves more water in the rivers and aquifers and stimulates the growth of grasses that not only feed cattle but store carbon in the ground.

Photo credit: Phillip Capper

Shades of green

If you are a vegan who only eats plants that come from regenerative, polycropped, organic food systems, it’s certain that your diet has a claim to higher moral ground than the average diet. If you eat this way and also occasionally buy local animal products from food production systems that caringly integrate animals into regenerative landscapes, your claim is much stronger. But if you are not paying careful attention to where your plants come from, how they’ve been processed, or how far they have traveled, it’s likely that for all your efforts you are not improving the lot of animals overall, and neither are you saving the world.

Even if you are persuaded by the environmental arguments, you may have a problem with the idea of killing animals. But if you think deeply, you might find that the immoral thing is not necessarily to deliberately take life. The immoral thing is to live in a way that destroys nature, which industrial agriculture does. In this context, the focus on the welfare of individual domesticated animals might be an extension of the modernist tendency to simplify and discriminate. The morality of living, eating, and dying is more complex than two-word slogans can prescribe. If we care about animals — wild or domesticated — we have to think in terms of entire ecosystems.

If you’re a vegan who eats food from monoculture fields where farm workers are routinely poisoned by synthetic inputs; if you eat food that comes packaged in layers of plastic that choke marine life after they are discarded into the ocean; if your nuts and quinoa are flown in from Brazil on the wings of fossil fuels — then are you really more moral or are you simply disconnected?

Eating to support life

Veganism is perhaps the gateway-par-excellence into conscious eating. In fact, people often feel better when they switch to a vegan diet, especially if it marks the first time they are thinking deliberately about what they are putting into their bodies. But it’s not clear whether the initial benefits that are sometimes felt come from being plant-exclusive or from the elimination of certain toxic foods that were formerly in the diet. It’s also been extensively documented that fasting from particular foods and nutrients for a period of time has health benefits, so long as those periods punctate a diet that is on the whole well-balanced.

There is reason to believe that animal protein—besides having played a leading role in human evolution—is necessary for excellent health. Even so, the debate about whether perfect human health can be achieved without animal products is unsettled. But what is certain is that our croplands and grasslands yearn for the reintegration of animals, and we’re past the point in ecological history where we can afford to not use every good method we’ve got to restore land and habitats. Providing a market for the right kind of animal products is a way to finance the good farmers doing the hard work of regeneration. We can channel our ancestral, vivid appetites into economies that support life.

Veganism is insufficient to maintaining a world where animals of every stripe have space and opportunity to flourish. To build that world, we have to stop cooking the planet by burning fossil fuels to fly out-of-season food around the globe. We have to put more carbon in the ground where it can support life instead of threatening it. We have to stop buying food that comes wrapped in plastic, which later ends up in landfills and oceans. We have to stop poisoning landscapes and people with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. We have to stop tearing down ecosystems to install monocultures. We have to stop destroying living soil and start creating more of it. Lovingly incorporating animals into regenerative food landscapes is a powerful way to do this, a means of creating a world where life can thrive.

People who reject factory farmed meat are already awake to the damage being caused by industrial farming — and what is more, they are willing to change their lifestyles to unplug from destructive systems. But there are solutions that go deeper and ultimately make a lot more sense, ones that produce good instead of simply abstaining from harm. They offer a way of eating that is active, delicious, and embedded. If we take a good hard look at our relationships with our ecosystems and eat accordingly, we might actually be able to save the world, as the vegan slogan goes.

If you care about people, animals, and the environment, we invite you to steep in these questions for a bit:

  • Is my food in season?
  • How is my food processed?
  • How is the food I buy packaged and where does the packaging go after I discard it?
  • How far has my food traveled?
  • Is the water used in its production sourced and managed in an ecologically sensible way?
  • Is the soil that produced the food languishing or becoming more fecund?
  • Does the landscape it was produced on provide habitats for a variety of wildlife?
  • How are the people involved in the production, transportation, and sale of my food living? Are they treated fairly?

It’s likely that the only way to know the answers will be to get out of the city and meet some farmers. This takes more time that most modern humans are accustomed to dedicating to food provision, but a trip out into the countryside might also ease your alienation.

Either way, we hope you enjoy your food and your place in the trophic cascade of life and death.

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Learn more:

Silvopasture — Project Drawdown

Managed Grazing — Project Drawdown

Regenerative Agriculture — Project Drawdown

Livestock and the transition to sustainable agriculture — FAO

Save our soils: Why dirt matters — University of Melbourne

Don’t abstain from meat, buy good meat — Ariel Greenwood

Permaculture, all grown up — Chris Newman

Levels of Regenerative Agriculture — Terra Genesis

An Animal’s Place — Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma — Michael Pollan

The Third Plate — Dan Barber

Farms we love:

Milkwood Farm — Koanga InstituteRodale InstituteNew Forest Farm — Freestone Ranch — Stone Barns Center FarmPolyface FarmPasturebirdKul Kul FarmRoebuck FarmLa Pateria de Sousa — Zaytuna Farms — Whole Systems Design —Labranto — Proyecto Deveras





The physics of energy and resulting effects on economics

10 07 2018

Hat tip to one of the many commenters on DTM for pointing me to this excellent video…. I have featured Jean-Marc Jancovici’s work here before, but this one’s shorter, and even though it’s in French, English subtitles are available from the settings section on the toutube screen. Speaking of screens, one of the outstanding statements made in this video is that all electronics in the world that use screens in one way or another consume one third of the world’s electricity…….. Remember how the growth in renewables could not even keep up with the Internet’s growth?

If this doesn’t convince viewers that we have to change the way we do EVERYTHING, then nothing will….. and seeing as he’s presenting to politicians, let’s hope at least some of them will come out of this better informed……

Jean-Marc Jancovici, a French engineer schools politicians with a sobering lecture on the physics of energy and the effects on economics and climate change