Friday, 18 December 2009

Mass Extinction and Rolling Back the Human Race

This article in the Science Daily is interesting, once you read the text and find that it's actually giving the opposite impression to the headline!

In short, it finds that the human race caused far more species extinctions, amongst mammals at least, in its pre-civilization phase than it has caused since. This actually makes a lot of sense: a new species has most effect when it first appears, but is the opposite of what most people would assume off the top of their heads.

(This was determined by a study of what happened in the Americas, where humans arrived relatively recently to a clean slate. Uncomfortable reading for those who unthinkingly revere native Americans as wiser custodians of the environment than Europeans. But not actually a reproach to native Americans, who simply did their best to adapt to and survive in, a new environment. Someone is going to post an angry comment about the white men killing all the Bison, or the Passenger Pigeon, but the study is about the disappearance of hundreds and hundreds of species over 2,000 years. In fact, the logic of the situation may be that Native Americans, through managing and changing the environment, helped nature create the remarkable and beautiful prairie system in which bison became so numerous and prevelant, and where one species of pigeon was able to build up to million-strong flocks each autumn. And if they did, that's something to really admire them for, rather than an ignorant supposition that they found everything already perfect, as in Eden, rather than finding a promised land that needed, and would reward, many generations of hard work. The Human race is not an abomination to nature: we are part of nature and our interactions with it are interesting and may, over great spans of time, actually prove constructive.)

There are some extreme environmentalists and animal rights people out there, who argue that, for the sake of other species, the human race needs to be "rolled back" to its pre-civilization condition. This research implies that might do more harm than good in its own terms, even if the requisite slaughter of the human race could be morally justified, which it cannot.

The "harm" has been done and humans are here. Getting rid of us can only do more harm, it will never restore a cuddly bunny utopia. The fastest way to disrupt and destroy any ecosystem is to remove a dominant species, and humans are now the dominant species. We must take appropriate care with the world, but there is no case whatsoever for getting rid of us!


DaveK9999999 said...

No one has to actively "get rid of us". The rapid growth of human population over the last 200 years was linked to the discovery of fossil fuels. Most people are now separated from Nature and the act of feeding themselves. Instead a tiny proportion of the population operate fossil-fuelled machines that do the farming for us.

But Peak Oil is here, and Peak Gas and Peak Coal are not far off - Peak Fossils will probably come in 2021. Peak Oil means Peak Petrol and Peak Diesel, while Peak Gas will mean Peak Fertiliser and hence Peak Food. Peak Population will lag Peak Food somewhat, because a majority of humans over-eat, but before long, the human population will start to plummet, along with the fossil fuel production rate, before descending into chaos.

The impact of billions of starving humans on the environment will be much worse than it was when the population was at the same size but growing. When we reach the 1 billion or so that we had at the start of the Fossil Age, the carrying capacity will have been wrecked, (think Afghanistan all over) and so the population will continue to fall.

The collapse will probably end when we are reduced to a small number of tropical rainforest hunter-gatherers.

All this is inevitable. The only thing that can be done to improve the situation is to help the system collapse in such a way as to prevent even more species going extinct.

"What about renewable energy?" I hear you ask. Unfortunately the infrastructure for renewable energy (and nuclear) needs a LOT of energy to build it. We can certainly start on the project, at the expense of still more CO2 in the atmosphere, but we cannot finish it because we are so close to Peak Fossils that a permanent decline in energy availability is certain to put a stop to further renewables. If we had started 20 years ago, we could have managed it, but now we have left it too late.

In our hubris we called ourselves "Homo sapiens", wise man. Not wise enough though.

Medawar said...

Industrial agriculture predates the internal combustion engine. Indeed, some of the techniques of steam agriculture would adapt to renewable electricity better than what we do at the moment. To take just one example: soil preparation, that is, ploughing, harrowing, rolling.

A steam ploughing engine is a ten or twelve-ton proposition, and it's quite obvious that it would take huge amounts of coal to drive it back and forth across the fields, and the soil would get compressed enough to make bricks, just before it was ploughed. But that wasn't what happened: two ploughing engines would slowly crawl down a firm permanently-grassed strip either side of the field, winching a plough, harrow or roller back and forth between them.

This is more fiddle than doing it with a diesel tractor, but would actually automate better and the benefits are not limited to the potential energy saving of the plough being the only thing that moves back and forth. The soil structure actually improves, year by year, (assuming you do nothing else stupid) because it's never seeing a heavy weight, especially in the autumn or winter when it's wet. The rollers don't compact the soil at all, especially as the winches can whisk them back and forth pretty smartly.

Because any vehicle carrying these winches moves along what amount to predetermined tracks at the edge of fields, grid electricity could be provided via outlet pillars and an industrial flex. A battery or fuel cell tractor would be a desperately expensive and unsustainable toy, but a plug-in self-propelled winch, however, could be immensely practical and do all sorts of other jobs over the year as well.

And farmers are being encouraged to bring back the traditional unploughed grass strips anyway, by environmentalists who appear to have no idea that they are key to how the rest of the land got ploughed in grandad's day!

Steam traction engines are not primitive modern tractors (pulling engines), they are indeed self-propelled winches.

Because they died out from the twenties onwards, they never realized the kind of thermal efficiencies seen in steam railway engines of the forties, such as the Peppercorn Class. (The progress made by steam technology in the thirties and forties easily matches that made by computers in the nineties. One can only speculate as to what farms would look like now, if kerosene*, petrol and diesel tractors had each come twenty years later than they did.)

But a modern electric equivalent could be very, very efficient. And if the mode of operation mimicked those of the age of steam, there could be lots of other benefits.

Would do a proper post on this, but only have photos of a ploughing engine running a sawmill, which would be confusing.

They usually do steam ploughing at the steam rally held at Shuttleworth College each summer. It's always instructive to look at how problems were solved a generation or two back, if current technology has found a dead end!

*Toddington Manor used to have a collection of American kerosene/parafin engined tractors. They are more like the industrial gas engines which inspired Ford and Daimler, not to mention Dr Diesel (the first automotive engines were unacknowledged copies of agricultural and industrial ones!) These machines were giants, invented for big fields, hence American. Tractors small enough for UK farms didn't happened until around 1900, when Daniel Albone in Biggleswade (near Shuttleworth College, as it happens,) started to make petrol tractors, as well as motorbikes and cars.

Medawar said...

It can be seen from above that, as with long distance ocean trade becoming a commercial proposition rather than an heroic adventure, it was the invention of reliable steel cables that was the enabling technology behind industrial agriculture. (Advanced sailing ships actually relied on galvanised steel cored rigging, with a hemp sleeve to make it handle and wear well. Otherwise the Georgians could have built the Cutty Sark. Most evolutions in sailing ship design stem from rigging and thus from the rope technology of the day.)

DaveK9999999 said...

The point I was trying to make is that if we have to completely rebuild all the machinery needed for farming, notwithstanding the brilliance of your technical solution, it will require a GIGANTIC amount of energy. All that steel and copper will have to be smelted with coke, producing massive amounts of CO2, or else a new electric arc steel smelting industry will have to be built from scratch, not to mention the gigantic amounts of electricity generating infrastructure that we will need, and the complete rebuild of the electricity grid. Maintaining an electricity grid is hard enough using petrol and diesel powered vehicles, but if we have to rebuild the entire fleet of cars and trucks as well, and all those batteries, on top of everything else, it will never happen.

Because we have lived through 150 years of cheap fossil energy, we have been able to invent and build stuff limited only by our inventiveness. But now we are entering an era of energy scarcity, and inventing clever new stuff won't help us because it will take too much energy to build it on a national scale.

We not only have to solve the ploughing problem, but also the fertiliser problem, and the harvester problem, and then we have to transport the bulk harvest to market, and distribute it to retail outlets and then to peoples' homes. Yes, all of these jobs can, on paper, be done with electricity. But we will have to scrap everything we have now and start again, and that's just not feasible in an energy scarce world.

Medawar said...

Don't think the race is doomed, yet.
The equipment the human race actually needs, is a small fraction of what it currently makes.

However, it must be said, that UK and US government research on meeting future food needs, is 100% focused, and budgeted, on GM crops, and not on alternative methods of cultivation. Indeed, the most important research centre for agricultural engineering techniques, in the world, really, was the Silsoe Institute, at Wrest park, which the Blair regime closed, because
Lord Sainsbury couldn't understand why they weren't doing any GM research there. He concluded that the absence of GM research meant that Silsoe wasn't "modern", even as robot tractors ploughed fields unattended and small sensor robots accompanied pigs through their daily lives, measuring their energy inputs and outputs.

The world cans till be saved, but not by pig-ignorant insular wastrels*, like: Gordon Brown, Lord Sainsbury, Antony Charles Lynton Blair, Hilary Benn or David Cameron.

*readers may insert their own alternative word of choice here.

And it's worth noting, for the benefit of Mr Benn and the AR crowd, that cows can propel themselves across fields and ploughs cannot.