Friday, April 27, 2007

"Green" as Vampirism

A general rule is that I will tolerate any one-time hit on nature and I am in favour of technologies that create new ecologies. But I am strongly opposed to any technology that demands continuous and ongoing consumption of nature to create value.

So I am strongly in favour of deep sea mining which may destroy "fragile ecosystems" of "unique species". These mining operations will put valuable minerals into the economy which will be recycled again and again and again while the affected ecosystems will recover. And I am strongly in favour of bioremediation using mycellia, living machines, urban gardens and green roofs. In contrast, I am strongly opposed to all biofuels, biomass and solar power.

The assumption that underlies this is that nature is different from us. It should be enjoyed at a distance. We shouldn't cover ourselves in nature or ingest it for the sake of ingesting it. Magical thinkers, eco-zealots, don't grasp the concept that nature is different from us and that by consuming it we are destroying it and not "becoming a part of it".

And this eco-vampirism of the "greens" shows up all over the place. It shows up in the greens' love of solar power and their desire to put solar panels on every rooftop. They are willfully blind to the fact they would be displacing green roofs and/or the opportunity for such green roofs. It shows up in their hatred of cities despite their having far lower ecological footprints than "eco"-housing built from "renewable" resources out in the middle of a forest.

It shows up in biofuels (biodiesel, ethanol) and biomass when they seek to consume nature to put it into the gas tank. It shows up in their enthusiasm for thermal depolymerization of manure and agricultural "waste". Because of course it's preferable to consume fertilizer than to give it away for urban gardens, compost heaps and living machines.

It's part of a general trend among "greens" that denies any standing for nature separate from humans. Either humans must consume nature or, in the case of the primitivists, humans must be consumed by nature. This kind of narrow-mindedness is actually broader than the "greens" since it shows up around civil engineers considering water-use issues.

For instance, one of the techniques used to "save water" is to line canals to "reduce water losses" This is good, right? Not so. Because by lining canals you reduce aquifer replenishment. It's not as if freshwater can be lost out on a high plain. Molecules of H2O aren't going to disappear or teleport themselves to the ocean.

In general, there's no such thing as "waste" when the environment is capable of making use of the resource. The environment can't use lead so it's a waste, it can use water so it's not a waste. It can use manure therefore ... it isn't a waste. At best it is being misused. And actually, since lead is used in industry, it too cannot be considered a waste. It can only be a waste if it is removed from the economy. In other words, labelling it a waste makes it a waste.

But even if eco-vampirism isn't restricted to "greens" it is particularly galling to find it among these hypocrites who so love to uphold their "closeness to nature" as a standard even as they are consuming it. Putting up solar panels doesn't make anyone "closer to nature" by the magical Law of Similarity. And living in a concrete jungle doesn't make one's lifestyle "unsustainable". On the contrary, using less of the same resources which the biosphere uses (land, water, sunlight) by relying more on the resources it doesn't use (copper, iron, uranium) makes one more sustainable.

The basic difference between greens and rationalists is the rationalists don't need to consume, or become, nature in order to appreciate it. They can enjoy it at a distance, marvelling at its presence. Nor do they need to put it to any utilitarian purpose. But best of all, rationalists are not scarcity-minded individuals. There is plenty of energy around, nuclear energy, so we hardly need to exploit nature to get it.

Since greens are magical thinkers they do not grasp many logical connections. Such as that by more efficiently exploiting nature, they impose enormous costs on the biosphere. I do grasp it and that's why I'm against biomass and in favour of nuclear power. Because nuclear power does not displace nature and so does not compete against it. Because nuclear power stands apart from nature it also doesn't touch nature.

And that is why "tree-hugger" is the worst possible epithet for an environmentalist. A tree-hugger's compulsion to hug nature to himself is so strong he willingly crushes it. Now if only someone would pull a gun on them and yell "Sir, put your hands on top of your head and step away from that ecosystem!"

8 comments:

sptrashcan said...

As is often the case, I don't agree.

The premise that nature is different from us - where I presume 'us' means 'human beings' - is at the very least not obvious. As a human being, I eat plants and animals, excrete fertilizer, am host to countless microorganisms, and when I die will most likely turn into compost. I rely on nature for food and oxygen, without which I have a tough time. Why am I not a part of nature? Perhaps I'm being dense, but I didn't see where you justified this premise.

I would also like some qualification to your assertion that deep-sea ecosystems 'will recover' from mining. The truth of that assertion relies both on the time scale of 'will' and the definition of 'recover'. Certainly human beings have yet to create a region so disastrously despoiled that nothing will ever live there again, but we have managed to create regions where organic survivability has been drastically reduced - through terrestrial mining, for one. And while an area may eventually have some form of life return, if the species involved in the original ecosystem have in the meantime gone extinct, it might arguably not be termed a 'recovery'.

The idea that certain resources are separate from nature, while other resources belong to nature, smacks to me of a kind of magical dualism. The natural world has, in the time available, become quite adept at exploiting most of the resources available to it. Copper and iron are essential nutrients in humans and other animals (albeit in amounts significantly less than those used in construction), and (although I realize this is a stretch) uranium and other radioactive metals are the source of geothermal heat, which drives deep-sea sulfur columns, which support ecosystems based on sulfur-reducing bacteria.

If you want to argue that, for instance, the total environmental impact of a well-run iron mine and a carefully designed skyscraper is less than that of an equivalent set of houses made of wood, then I would agree. I am a proponent of dense, well-planned urban centers. And if you want to argue in favor of nuclear power, I'm interested in that too. But you come across to me as having an active distaste for nature and those who prefer to live as a part of it - which is what many human beings have done for a very long time, and which is infeasible now only because the sheer density of human beings demands more efficient solutions.

Even with the greatest possible separation of human beings from (the rest of) nature, somebody will still need to hug a tree - if only to shake the apples out. I like apples. Don't you?

Richard Kulisz said...

If it's not self-evident to you how human beings are increasingly removed from nature (physically, psychologically and morally) and how this is a good thing, there's no point talking about it. Though I will point out that an ever increasing portion of our economy has no contact whatsoever with nature.

Your claims that species extinction means that an ecosystem cannot ever recover are fucking nonsense, no matter how many qualifiers you place around them. Extinction is a normal part of nature. An ecosystem recovers when its mass and diversity approaches previous levels. This should be self-evident though evidently not for you, for reasons which aren't evident to me.

Equally, the idea that certain resources belong to nature and others don't is patently obvious. Denying it smacks of willfull blindness. Like people who deny that race exists just because all the features of black people individually can be found in white people. The correlation obviously matters. So it should be evident that human beings' rapacious use of copper, iron, tin, nickel, lead (!), mercury (!!), and petro plastics makes these OUR resources in a way that CHON or solar energy can never be.

> But you come across to me as having an active distaste for nature and those who prefer to live as a part of it

The first clause in that sentence is false and irrelevant. The second clause is true and still irrelevant.

> which is what many human beings have done for a very long time

As well as poverty, genocide and infanticide. Civilized people don't live "in nature". It isn't merely a physical or economic concern, it is a moral concern. The kind of deprivation and poverty which "living in nature" implies is morally objectionable.

> somebody will still need to hug a tree - if only to shake the apples out.

Somebody will just need to figure out how to build an apple harvester.

sptrashcan said...

As is often the case, you are the first to drop the f-bomb. :P

I agree that humans are increasingly separate from nature, and that this has been beneficial in many ways. However, humans are still animals and will continue to be so for some time, and this condition will not be changed simply by refusing to acknowledge it. I for one plan to continue breathing, eating, and defecating for a while yet, and I don't see anyone else stopping anytime soon. Civilization can be thought of as the process which removes us from nature, but only as it coincides with making people's lives suck less.

I regret to inform you that your definition of ecosystem recovery is one of several reasonable-sounding definitions, and choosing between those definitions is not as easy for me as for you. Even given that definition, however, there remain a few concerns regarding ecosystem recovery. One is that species extinction, while natural and inevitable, does represent a loss of potentially valuable information. The other is that ecosystems perform various functions which may be beneficial or even necessary to human life, and even if they do recover eventually, there may be a significant interim period where nothing is performing that function. That could be bad.

Yes, there exists a continuum along which substances are more or less useful to natural processes, and this continuum reflects in some part the degree to which those substances have been available to life on earth during the course of its evolution. Consider, though, that in exploiting substances on the deleterous end of that continuum, we have inadvertently (or carelessly) introduced those substances to ecosystems which are not adapted to handling them in any great quantity. This is probably a bad plan, and further exploitation of those substances should probably seek to avoid that kind of thing.

I'm sorry I'm talking nonsense. It may not seem so, but I can sometimes be convinced of the error of my ways - but it would help if you provided some of the information and reasoning you use in reaching your conclusions, so that I am spared the difficult task of coming to them independently. Also, use smaller words, please - my primate-derived brain is particularly keen on cues for food and sex, so sprinkling those in would do wonders to retain my attention. :)

Richard Kulisz said...

If all you're good for is "eating, breathing and defecating" then humanity needs to look into ways to get rid of you. Biological functions occupy an ever decreasing share of human lifespan. They already occupy only a tiny part of a human lifespan. Unless you are a monkey incapable of higher thought, but that will have to wait for a future blog entry.

> does represent a loss of potentially valuable information.

It's only self-referentially valuable. It is historically valuable because it exists, its existence is valuable because of its historical value. Yech.

> ecosystems perform various functions which may be beneficial or even necessary to human life

Deep sea marine ecosystems do not. Forests and scrublands, cut down either to make timber or to grow monocultures, do perform these functions.

Furthermore, there's a magnifier effect because organic products are essentially useless after they have been used. A tonne of extracted wood is worth about a tonne of wood. In contrast, a tonne of extracted steel is worth 4 tonnes since it's recycled at a 75% rate in the USA.

So let's keep our fingers crossed and hope house-building robots come on the scene quickly. They will use either cement, steel or aluminum. Let's also hope for vat meat. And let's hope ethanol dies the ignoble death it deserves.

And by the way, if we were industry minded then we would shut down all coal power plants in order to preserve coal for steel and concrete making. It's rather difficult to replace for those purposes.

> in exploiting substances on the deleterous end of that continuum, we have inadvertently (or carelessly) introduced those substances to ecosystems which are not adapted to handling them in any great quantity

Sucks to be an American, doesn't it? To have to live with that on your conscience. Coal mining is probably the greatest cause of such pollution. Another one is automobiles. Yet another is a policy of absolving manufacturers, distributors and retailers for the pollution they make as a side-effect to acquiring profits. None of these are things Americans are prepared to address since they worship money and hate collective activities. Like regulation.

There seems to be something wrong in the regulation of hazardous waste since very little of it ends up recycled as raw metal. And that's a shame because there's a large demand for lead for ophtalmological-grade glass in, say, computer monitors.

> Also, use smaller words, please - my primate-derived brain is particularly keen on cues for food and sex, so sprinkling those in would do wonders to retain my attention. :)

You mean 'fuck' doesn't qualify?

sptrashcan said...

> If all you're good for is "eating, breathing and defecating" then humanity needs to look into ways to get rid of you.

Eating, breathing, and defecating are just a few of my many talents!

> Biological functions occupy an ever decreasing share of human lifespan.

Maybe so, but it's not like human beings need to eat less and less as they become more civilized. And I wouldn't mind spending a bit longer on my meals - fast food will be the death of me.

> It's only self-referentially valuable. It is historically valuable because it exists, its existence is valuable because of its historical value. Yech.

I'm surprised at the lack of curiosity implied by this statement. It's hard to determine exactly how valuable information is going to be before you know it. Insert the usual spiel about rainforest plants and the next breakthrough in modern medicine here. Perhaps your position would be more understandable if you explained exactly what could be gained from deep-sea mining, and how you know they are definitely more valuable to us right now than the existing ecosystem. In particular,

> Deep sea marine ecosystems do not.

Are you sure? How do we know if we haven't studied them thoroughly? We won't be able to after we destroy them. An ecosystem is a remarkable thing, and a deep-sea ecosystem is even more remarkable. It's a strange machine, we don't know quite how it works or even what exactly it does, and you want to smash it and clear it away to get at the stuff underneath?

> A tonne of extracted wood is worth about a tonne of wood. In contrast, a tonne of extracted steel is worth 4 tonnes since it's recycled at a 75% rate in the USA.

A fair and interesting point, but what happens to the rest of the steel? Unfortunately, the wood is probably treated with chemicals, so after it is no longer useful it goes to the landfill. But if it weren't, it could be turned back over to nature, where it would turn into all sorts of other stuff with a 100% reclamation rate. Can we get the same win from steel?

I think I may see what you're getting at, though. We have, essentially, two pools of resources. One pool is usable only by humans, and the other pool is usable by humans and nature. You want to maximize use of the first pool and minimize use of the second, because if we maximize use of the second pool there won't be enough left for nature. There are two problems: one, humans need stuff from the second pool to live; and two, even if we maximize the efficiency of our use of the first pool, if the number of humans continues to increase we may outstrip the efficient use of the first pool.

> Sucks to be an American, doesn't it?

You have no idea. As if the silliness of my friends and neighbors weren't enough, now I have foreigners shitting on me for stuff I didn't do. Almost makes me feel like moving back to the Netherlands. :(

> You mean 'fuck' doesn't qualify?

Well played, sir!

Incidentally, let me know when you get tired of our back and forth. I'm having quite a bit of fun, but if you're genuinely getting stressed out by my ignorant argumentation, I'll stop.

Richard Kulisz said...

> I'm surprised at the lack of curiosity implied by this statement. [...] Insert the usual spiel about rainforest plants and the next breakthrough in modern medicine here.

Except this usual spiel is crud. Ideas about hunting and killing the next great pharmaceutical are all well and good but it's high time biochemistry and cellular biology became engineering disciplines. With scientific theories and mathematical models all aimed at predictability. With synthetic biology, I don't expect it to take more than a few decades for at least cellular biology to become scientific. And in that period of time, we aren't going to run out of rainforest to explore. So the material utility of these organisms is zero. And keep in mind those are extinct black smokers, so no thermophile bacteria around.

My emphasis on science also explains my "lack of curiosity" about the peculiar makeup of these ecosystems. Which is almost entirely the result of historical accident. Not something of any consequence to me since I'm not a magical thinker (or a trainspotter) so I don't believe in magical essence (the topic of yet another blog entry I have planned). What matters are ecological niches and those niches aren't going to go away just because the ecosystem is disrupted.

> Perhaps your position would be more understandable if you explained exactly what could be gained from deep-sea mining, and how you know they are definitely more valuable to us right now than the existing ecosystem. In particular,

What's to be gained is billions of tonnes of minerals. Iron, copper, zinc, gold, silver. All of them important industrial metals.

And I know that's more valuable because the knowledge drawn from these extinct black smokers has near zero value. And because these ecosystems don't account for much of the world's biomass nor its energy transfers.

> we don't know quite how it works or even what exactly it does, and you want to smash it and clear it away to get at the stuff underneath?

Ayup. Consider that the biological distinctiveness of a species is less than the psychological distinctiveness of a single human being. And I am including monkeys. As long as all the niches are filled, the ecosystem functions to its potential, and it's got enough diversity to be resilient, species really don't matter.

> A fair and interesting point, but what happens to the rest of the steel?

Some of it rusts. Steel rails rust for example. A lot of copper from break pads goes into runoff. Most of it probably finds its way to the garbage dump. Cans, jar lids, nails, screws, miscellaneous products of all kinds.

> But if it weren't, it could be turned back over to nature, where it

would be useless to us. Don't worry about us running out of iron ore to mine. There's plenty in the seabed. There's even more in asteroids. And if worse comes to worse then there's quite a bit in magma. And then, I expect titanium to be broadly used within a few decades thanks to 3D printers working off of metal powders. And titanium barely rusts at all.

> There are two problems: one, humans need stuff from the second pool to live

Which is why I'm counting on many technologies such as electronic ink, contour crafting, and vat meat. To solve that little problem. Because the second pool is far more in danger of running out than the first pool. Just look at deforestation.

> and two, even if we maximize the efficiency of our use of the first pool, if the number of humans continues to increase we may outstrip the efficient use of the first pool.

The number of humans isn't likely to increase past 9 billion. I don't see any limits in the availability of minerals for the next thousand years or so. Even though we are currently experiencing shortages as China industrializes.

> now I have foreigners shitting on me for stuff I didn't do. Almost makes me feel like moving back to the Netherlands. :(

Noted. ;)

> Incidentally, let me know when you get tired of our back and forth. I'm having quite a bit of fun, but if you're genuinely getting stressed out by my ignorant argumentation, I'll stop.

Are you kidding? This is great. But since you asked, if that point comes I'll even be polite. :)

sptrashcan said...

I think I've reached the point where I at least understand what you're saying and why. I have a few remaining questions:

- By your reasoning, it's apparent why solar power is bad on earth: it consumes a resource from the pool usable by nature. What about solar panels on the moon, or elsewhere in space? If those are OK, what about solar panels in Death Valley? Ain't nothing growing down there. Where does a solar panel become bad?

- This may be a topic for a different post, but exactly what characterizes a 'magical thinker'? I always considered 'magical thought' to be just pattern matching heuristics run amok, but I don't think that's what you're talking about here. Also, if most people are magical thinkers, isn't it kind of impractical to make plans without taking them (possibly us, as I'm not sure whether I'm a magical thinker or not!) into account?

Richard Kulisz said...

Photovoltaics has practical concerns that far outweigh the moral concerns. It's an incredibly expensive technology suited only for off-grid applications.

So basically, anyone who's connected to the grid shouldn't have them. And the people who should have them is basically extremely rural people who can't be grid connected. Which raises the question of whether we should be enabling people to live far off the grid, but it's a fact that many already do. Not many people live in Death Valley.

And even if solar panels were cheap enough to be put in the deserts and have their power piped into the cities, there would be problems (perhaps surmountable) with intermittency. Especially the fact they deliver power when the grid needs it least (noon) not when it needs it most (about 6 o'clock AM and PM).

Eventually, putting up solar panels in orbit, solar orbit, will be the right way to go. Not least because the main drawback of solar (intermittency) is eliminated and PV becomes cost-effective with nuclear fission.

> but exactly what characterizes a 'magical thinker'?

Someone incapable of analytic thinking in Bloom's taxonomy of cognition. It's a neurological pathology similar to but infinitely worse than dyslexia. Basically, it's someone who can't reason about abstract systems. Like mathematics or programming languages. They can only learn them by rote, never master them.

> I always considered 'magical thought' to be just pattern matching heuristics run amok

That's not really explanatory. Unless you mean it in the sense of simple over-matching, in which case it's just wrong. If anything, magical thinking is under-matching. People whose brains can't create abstract concepts so they are forced to match against concretes. Or maybe people who can't lock onto an abstract match.

There is an exquisitely specific pattern to magical thinkers' ideas. Gods, magic, mysticism, even astrology, all follow very specific patterns. It all reduces down to the magic power of words (or numbers) and the "insight" of contradictions.

> if most people are magical thinkers, isn't it kind of impractical to make plans without taking them (possibly us, as I'm not sure whether I'm a magical thinker or not!) into account?

Oh, I make plans for them alright. I just don't make plans counting on their willing participation.

Most of my plans for magical thinkers involve eugenics or setting up a two-class fascist hierarchy.

Die Spiegel has an interesting article on biofuels.