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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sustainability: An Elusive Goal in an Entropy World

I have lived on this planet for 54 years. Much of that time has been spent observing and protecting nature, while developing a great respect for the intricate complex web of Mother Nature. To many, it has been a great party; but is that all man will ever be able to say of himself? He partied well? Face it, we found a "stash" of easy, cheap, party material in 1859, and we have been living it up ever since while ignoring the consequences with an utterly cavalier attitude that I have found repugnant and unbelievingly short-sighted.

One evening in Yellowstone NP, where I worked as a park ranger, I was having dinner at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel; a magnificent old framed structure that was built in 1892. Most of the conversation seemed to be steeped in how far and how fast the diners had come to be there. Few, if any, seemed to be concerned one way or another about what might be out there in the wild expanse of protected wilderness. But is it any wonder, really, when you stop to think about it?

Our civilization has grown increasingly alienated from the processes of nature, and therefore hardly knows where to begin thinking about the likes of ecology, much less the consequences of increased entropy due to the use of fossil fuels and the technology that came with them. To them, the park experience is enjoying some scenery, gawking at a few geysers, roadside stops to set to Kodak the often seen elk or bison herd, and dealing with crowded campgrounds and slow motor homes. In fact, it is viewed much like a trip to Disneyland, where wild animals should be kept locked up if they are dangerous. I recall a woman trying to photograph her grandchildren not ten feet from a 1500 lb. bison. When I warned her to move away, that the bison was a wild animal and quite dangerous, she replied with obvious indignation, "Well! If they're so dangerous, why do you let them out?"

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that no one cares about the wilds of Yellowstone. Of course they do. But of the three million plus visitors to Yellowstone National Park each year, the vast majority of them see the park through their windshield in about four hours. Cars and motor homes clog the roadways. By ten in the morning, all of the campgrounds are full, every day. Conversely, if you go more than a quarter of a mile off the road, you are alone.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the American citizenry's conscious relation to the park is woefully inadequate to insure it's long-term protection, much in the way that it is inadequate to truly comprehend the ramifications of peak-oil. Yellowstone, to continue to be Yellowstone must be appreciated as more than a place to go camping, fishing, and rollerblading.

Think about it. Do you really know what must be preserved and how to do it? If Yellowstone was kept safe and nice, it would cease to be the place we set aside to preserve. After all, Yellowstone didn't require any human guidance to become what it is before the ignorant intervention of mankind. This same kind of ignorance of the natural and physical world is going to plague us with the crisis of peak-oil and finding a sustainable solution. So, I am going to make my case once again and do it really simple. You 2nd Law purists can go pound sand if you don't like the analogy.

If you drop a plate in your kitchen and it breaks, does it take more energy to bend over and pick up the broken plate that it did to break it? Of course, we all can agree on that. Does it take more energy to use a broom to sweep up the same pieces? Many will say, no, the utility of the broom makes it easier and faster. Now if you go get the vacuum and suck up the broken pieces, does this take less energy? Sure, you say. Even easier and much faster.

Which method produced the least amount of entropy increase? Using your hands, of course. You converted sugars to ATP and burned it exerting physical effort. The broom, however, required that a tree be felled for the handle, or oil to be extracted and made into plastic for the bristles and handle, and all the other myriad of energy conversions that gave off wasted energy in the process (2nd Law). The vacuum required plastics, steel, cooper, rubber, etc, all to be mined, manufactured and assembled. Think of all the energy conversions that took place. The more complex the technology, the more entropy was increased, and the more energy it will take to combat the entropy increase somewhere else. We have stepped on the gas (pun intended). We clean up one mess and make a bigger one somewhere else as a result. In a finite world of limited energy resources does continuing this make sense? Is it sustainable? We know it is not.

In an entropy world, nothing is actually sustainable; but somewhere between using our hands and using the vacuum, there is an increase in entropy that we can live with without exceeding the carrying capacity of our world.

Our goal is to find it. How long an existence, with how many people, and at what standard of living should we desire for mankind?

We are hopefully smarter than bacteria in a Petri dish, but we are susceptible to the same laws that limit growth in a finite world.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch."

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