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« The Green Bandwagon | Main | Dark Side of Green, Continued »



The Dark Side of Green

Andrei, my friend and nemesis, worries in his response to my last post, “The Green Bandwagon,” that I’ve lost my critical faculties lately, and have degenerated into slogan-spouting: “War is bad.” “Nature is good.” The road to hell, he warns, is paved with good intentions. And platitudes.

He’s struck a soft spot. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a story, “Once a Dream Fuel, Palm Oil May Be an EcoNightmare” (online access restricted), about the unintended consequences of a green fad. Some excerpts from the story, by Elisabeth Rosenthal:

Just a few years ago, politicians and environmental groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the early and rapid adoption of ‘sustainable energy,’ achieved in part by coaxing electrical plants to use biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia….
But last year, when scientists studied practices at palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, this green fairy tale began to look more like an environmental nightmare. Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there. Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere… Considering these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world’s third-leading producer of carbon emissions that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, according to a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands...Biofuelswatch, an environment group in Britain, now says that ‘biofuels should not automatically be classed as renewable energy.’ It supports a moratorium on subsidies until more research can determine whether various biofuels in different regions are produced in a nonpolluting manner.

Okay. We’re human, we're going to make mistakes. But not always. A few decades ago, ships and factories were using the Hudson River as a sewer. Then nature-lovers like my friend John Cronin, the original Riverkeeper, sued the polluters and stopped them. My kids can swim in the Hudson now. Sometimes good intentions have good outcomes.

Comments

mike cook

I need to be a bit more serious about methane. By far the most dangerous methane concentrations are at the bottom of oceans in frozen form--the clathrate formations. Many serious scientists fret that further warming of the oceans will, by the action of the deep ocean conveyor belt, melt these clathrates and release enormous bubbles of methane, which is over twenty times a nasty green house gas than carbon dioxide.

Fortunately, fears that the deep ocean conveyor system is changing direction or stalling (a signal of significant warming) seem to be eased by recent studies, which show the conveyor belt to be in fine shape.

If we want to be on the safe side, however, we would seed the top layers of oceans over known clathrate formations with mineral fertilizers, particularly iron dust. This would result in huge blooms of photosynthetic algae and all the biota that feed off such, including fish and whales at the top of the food chain. Better yet, the algae blooms would suck a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere, perhaps enough to win the $20 million prize!

More importantly, everything that thrives in the topmost layer eventually dies and settles to the bottom of the ocean as biotic snow. The good thing about this snow is that it could act as an insulator to protect the clathrates from melting.

It is often pointed out that once a lot of methane gets loose it is a self-fueling fire as far as runaway global warming. We can do a lot to cover up methane ices on the ocean bottom, for not too much money, actually.

nonattender

"Sometimes good intentions have good outcomes."

(implicit: "Sometimes good intentions have bad outcomes.")

(2nd-degree implicit: "Sometimes bad intentions have good outcomes.")

(2nd-degree implicit: "Sometimes bad intentions have bad outcomes.")

What's the lesson here, class?

Isn't it the job of science to make explicit not only the possible outcomes, but those which are *most likely* to result from a certain course?

Seems like there's a significant and concrete failure there on the part of "science" - one which has nothing to do with words like "good" or "bad", distinctions which only come into play when making qualitative decisions about course-selection (or, absent reliable science, course-correction).

nonattender

Put more simply, it is the job of science to tell us, beforehand, and as precisely as reasonably possible, exactly "when" (and under what circumstances) intention and outcome should be expected to align.

"Sometimes" is, indeed, the standard answer...

mike cook

I must seriously apply for this $20 million prize. Of course others have proposed seeding the oceans with iron dust in order to cause algae blooms and thereby sequester an enormous amount of carbon dioxide, but I am the first to point out that this same strategy in targeted ocean locations will also fight the dangerous release of methane from frozen ices on the ocean bottom.

The fact of the matter is that an enormous area of the ocean surface on our planet is a desert--mainly because of lack of nutrients. One nutrient mid-ocean algae can get from the air (carbon dioxide) but other stuff has to come from somewhere else.

I was really struck some years back by pictures of sunken ships from the W.W.II era near Midway Island. After more than half a century these ships look startlingly fresh, as if they had sank last month or something.

The reason is that the mid-ocean is a desert. In the whole water column from seabed to surface not much is going on, and that is entirely because of a lack of mineral nutrients. The atmosphere can only bring so much. If humans step in and supply the rest we can extract carbon from our atmosphere in gigantic bites.

In so doing, we will insulate the sleeping monster, methane ices, deep below sea level.

Andrei Kirilyuk

Ready for a Jump?

The nonattender's comments above approach the specific modern feature, and problem, of that eternal way of “imperfect man's progress” by trial-and-error efforts. It is only now, starting from the second half of the 20th century, that humans are directly and seriously touching the whole scale of the full “complexity of nature”. The problem with those “truly complex“ systems is that every interaction gives rise to an exponentially huge, intractable number of other interactions (“exponentially huge” means that even the argument (exponent) of the exponential function is a “very big” number, while the function value tends to “practical infinity”). In that situation, the canonical trial-and-error progress becomes inefficient, up to emerging catastrophic results (see examples from this and the next Horganism posts), because it becomes practically impossible to “guess” the right solution, even applying a miraculously powerful intuition (cf. notorious “unpredictability” of complex system behaviour and reaction). In other words, the proportion of good outcomes of (usual) good intentions quickly drops down to practical zero (which is one divided by the above practically infinite number of possibilities).

In the previous epoch of conventional science and industrial technology triumph, that “full-complexity effect” could be avoided, on the whole, by dominating “gliding at the surface” of a huge complexity ocean remaining visibly untouched (but not really as demonstrated by persisting scientific “mysteries” and occasional practical, including ecological, catastrophes). But now we cannot remain at the surface any more, we need all of it (energy, substance, possibilities), and yet a bit more, and then much more... Slowing down progress is not a real solution (windmills won't help in perspective) because progress IS (civilisation) life.

Another aspect of the same problem is the “generalised second law”, i.e. the law of “degradation of everything”, which is as persistent as the time flow itself (if you can stop degradation, you can stop time). It is actually close to a religious kind of ideas, “whatever you do, you do it in a wrong way (it's a sin)”, etc. Thus, in John's “positive” example of Hudson river revival, one can be sure that its purification is attained only at the expense of destruction and contamination of something else (maybe mostly air by production of the necessary electricity), and the nasty law of degradation tells us, ruthlessly, that the resulting degradation (disorder) should always exceed the obtained “amelioration” (ordering) in quantity (a refrigerator or air conditioner is ALWAYS a heating, not cooling device, in total). [Although one can at least minimise that surplus of destruction, that's true.] The ultimate, unified origin of that disappointing law, remaining hidden in usual science, is in the same huge power of unreduced interaction processes (just neglected in the usual science doctrine): once you try to “ameliorate” (order) something, you provoke inevitably such a huge “fan” of any other, undesired interactions that the total result will always be not in your favour (but unfortunately it can be in your favour LOCALLY, which gives the standard illusion of “unlimited” efficiency of usual technology). The terrifying conclusion is that there can be NO really good outcomes at all (when everything is taken into account), even irrespective of intentions. And that is our common, ruthless Nemesis.

Are we doomed then, and if not, how can we win over the omnipotent law of degradation? As we cannot go around it in any way, it remains only to meet it openly, face to face and turn it in our favour. It is possible because Nature itself uses such a method: it is also a huge “production process” containing its own catastrophes and contradictions, but also dominating creation and general sustainability, at least within a human time scale (e.g. the sun lifetime). The change we need is the decisive, qualitatively big (and therefore SUBJECTIVELY difficult but OBJECTIVELY possible) transition to a superior level of major production processes that would possess the unreduced (and growing) dynamic complexity of natural processes instead of being limited today to subjectively, mentally “easy”, but objectively destructive simplicity (“linear chain” kind of dynamics). All rivers and air can be kept clean in a sustainable way only when our production processes will have the same, truly complex kind of dynamics (kind of “life”), where the complexity level is limited only by that of our brain dynamics, but the latter doesn't need to be (practically) limited (e.g. by its modern use tending to zero complexity applications).

It means that we simply need today a MUCH GREATER change in the same, “green” direction, a “complexity jump”, a holistic “green revolution” rather than a smooth “green pace”, which only confirms that progress cannot be a smooth, even process. We deal here with a high enough “green (complexity) threshold”, below which any externally “green” action can only produce degradation, in total (and a dangerous local ILLUSION of progress). The necessary big change may be about as dramatic and inspiring as a birth of a living creature (the latter is nothing but abrupt, visible emergence of a high enough complexity level), but probably we can say that this civilisation is “very pregnant” now with that kind of change and maybe it's time to recognise its forthcoming huge SCALE and TRUE meaning (instead of mere “political” plays of standard “ecological awareness”) and see a doctor if necessary (e.g. at http://arXiv.org/abs/physics/0509234 ). Contrary to conventional science blunders, the birth of any externally “ordered” structure, from an elementary particle to a baby, corresponds to a strong INCREASE (rather than decrease) of the full, dynamic entropy-complexity (in compliance with the above degradation law), but somehow SUCH entropy increase doesn't really look as degradation... Do you see now what I mean? It's not impossible to become (effectively) younger and healthier, you need only to jump to a superior complexity level and start it all over again. Ask the doctor...

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