[p2p-research] Earth's carrying capacity and Catton

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sun Aug 16 06:42:42 CEST 2009

Ryan Lanham wrote:
> The sun is the overwhelming source of energy for the planet.  No doubt about
> it.  But you've got to convert that energy to direct or alternating current
> for it to be maximally useful, and that takes conversion either from heat
> sinks or from light.  The ocean is the obvious heat sink, hence my interest
> in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).  OTEC at scale could answer many
> questions...but that is 30 plus years off with no clear economic model and
> no hydrogen or ammonia markets to feed yet.
> Passive solar is also interesting, but it doesn't generate current.  You
> need current to do work--like producing fuels such as hydrogen or ammonia.
> Creating warmth or cooling is only about 10-20% of global energy use.  Even
> if houses were hugely more efficient, it wouldn't matter that much.  But it
> is "low hanging" fruit.

I have pointed out how we are a few years away from "grid parity" with 

Check out this graph showing grid parity in a few years, from BP, not 
exactly fringe people:
   "The Path to Grid Parity"

Consider this article:
   "Solar quickly approaching grid parity"
"Solar module prices are falling so fast that solar may be able to 
cost-effectively compete with fossil fuels within a matter of months. The 
latest bit of news confirming astounding price drops was from China’s LDK 
Solar. LDK is a producer of the main component of solar modules (wafers). 
While their second quarter guidance showed a boost in shipments, it also 
lowered their revenue expectations, translating into a cost per watt of ~$1."

Nanosolar already claims there panels are cheaper than burning coal, and 
they are sold out for eighteen months.

Are you saying all these people are either stupid or lying?

> Cutting transportation is highly problematic.  I suspect wind power will be
> in large use again within 20 years, but wind doesn't help on land.  Rail
> systems are part of the answer, as is hybrid, electric, natural gas and
> hydrogen (and maybe ammonia),  but those are years away too.

China says it will be mass producing an electric car. (See previous post 
mentioning China going green.)

> Wind is also generally interesting but it is counter-cyclical to use (most
> wind blows at night) and it is variable everywhere.  So it is a reducer or
> helper fuel...turning it into hydrogen would be great, but the plants work
> variably and would need to be robotic to make sense.  Still, wind is a
> contributor and part of the answer.

Compressed air, as mentioned before. Or put the aluminum smelting plants 
etc. next to the wind farms.

> At present, ammonia accounts for 1.5% (one point five) of the total global
> electricity production.  We don't produce enough of it.  It is
> overwhelmingly the most important fertilizer.  Just fertilizer production is
> a major energy issue.  Add 2 or 3 billion people to the planet (and we will)
> and the problems because 50% harder. Any large model would need to factor in
> ammonia production.

"Towards Holistic Agriculture: A Scientific Approach"
R.W. Widdowson shows how strong nitrogenous fertilizer displaces 
micronutrients, causing plants to be less nutritious to eat and less able to 
resist pests.

Ground up rock is a better choice, but is slow release so requires a 
multi-year organic perspective.

Smari would probably be glad to sell you some Icelandic rock dust if you 
have no rocks of your own. :-)

> Photovoltaic (current from light) is highly problematic so far.  It produces
> lots of waste plastics and requires many nasty chemicals.  Plus the
> electronics burn out...some over longer times than others, but they burn
> out.

Oh, come one. Citations? Solar panels usually have twenty to thirty year 
warranties, and seem to last even  longer. In thirty years we'll likely have 
all kinds of amazing material science -- maybe including nanotech disassemblers.

Compared to the energy produced and burning coal, the waste is trivial. 
Again, people are claiming cheaper than coal now.

Granted, lead acid batteries only have a ten year or so lifespan, but they 
are fairly easily recyclable, and we are rapidly improving energy storage 
technologies of all sorts.

> The trouble with all carbon liquids is the carbon.  Hence you will need to
> convince yourself and everyone else that carbon isn't the issue.  Personally
> I think it is the overwhelming number 1 issue.  Carbon is a physical issue,
> and so is speculation unless you anticipate a planned economy which hasn't
> worked yet.

With energy, you could make any of these you want:

There is plenty of carbon in the air. You can also take biomass and add 
energy to it to make fuels.

> Nuclear is problematic because of the waste.  I am still an advocate for
> so-called 3rd gen nuclear.  Many reasonable and smart people think nuclear
> is a major problem.  I cannot prove them wrong.

At SUNY Stony Brook, I knew one grad student who studied wildlife (turtles) 
in a reservation around a nuclear contaminated area, and while there was 
more mutations, in general, the wildlife was thriving.

Also, consider this:
"Chernobyl Area Becomes Wildlife Haven"
"The return of wildlife to the region near the world's worst nuclear power 
accident is an apparent paradox that biologists are trying to measure and 
understand. Wildlife has returned despite radiation levels in much of the 
evacuated zone that remain 10 to 100 times higher than background levels, 
according to a 2005 U.N. report _ though they have fallen significantly 
since the accident, due to radioactive decay. Some researchers insist that 
by halting the destruction of habitat, the Chernobyl disaster helped 
wildlife flourish. Others say animals may be filtering into the zone, but 
they appear to suffer malformations and other ills."

So, despite the problems, half-seriously, I suggest designating the NY 
Adirondack Park (where I live) for a nuclear waste disposal of glassified 
(vitrified) apple-sized lumps of waste. :-) That would be very good for a 
resurgence of wildlife in the Park. I might move out, but I would know a 
place I love would be "forever wild" for sure. :-)

I already live in a town that during WWII was being considered for uranium 
mining. So, would the background radiation go up much?

If we and about 50,000 others were compensated for moving out of the Park, 
and I knew it would mean everyone on the planet would have energy 
prosperity, and it would keep the snowmobilers and loggers and hunters away, 
sure, let's "nuke" the park as a waste disposal site. :-) While I'm no fan 
of snowmobiles, I'm not especially against sustainable logging or 
sustainable hunting -- but aesthetically and spiritually, I can see a point 
to just leaving the whole place alone. :-) Especially if the entire globe 
would benefit enormously. Bring us you tired, your poor, your nuclear waste. :-)

Again though, I'd rather see a solar option personally. But radiation is 
used in medicine, so we need to solve this disposal problem somehow anyway.
"Nuclear Isotope Shortage Hurting Health Care"

I'd rather we did not have to irradiate the park to save it from, say, New 
York State changing its constitution one afternoon next week in a closed 
session and selling it off to a private individual to close a budget gap for 
one year. But if I had to choose, I'd rather spread the waste evenly through 
it, yes, to keep it forever wild, because it would be better for the 
wildlife. This sounds nice, but it's only words on paper when the 
legislators start looking for money:
"Section 1. The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, 
constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be  forever kept 
as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be 
taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be 
sold, removed or destroyed."

Irradiating the Park would put some teeth into those words. :-)

Still, personally, I prefer solar power because it is generally more 
decentralized in production and operation.

Anyway, it is interesting to think about nuclear waste as an asset to 
somebody or something. :-)

> Reduced consumption is the good strategy, but it is hard without major
> controls.  Such social controls have never been successfully applied on a
> large scale.  Even air pollution is still quite common...and virtually all
> of the low-hanging fruit in that field has been taken, particularly in the
> US, Europe and other developed nations.

Consciousness raising has had some effect. Yes, this is an issue. But I'd 
suggest that there is a nature process over time as people move from 
quantity into quality.

> You are wrong about useful land for productive purposes...it is getting
> quite scarce.  Bear in mind that we most also filter CO2 with trees, that we
> must provide ecosystems, that we must sequester carbon located in plants and
> grounds, etc.  There is little free land left...and desertification is
> proceeding at record rates.  The Sahara not long ago had lakes in it. Now
> the Sahel moves year by year south.

The Earth gets 10000 times the power our industry needs (even including 
industrial heat) from solar energy. In round numbers, 10% of the Earth's 
surface is useable land. So, 1000 times the power is accessible without 
using the oceans. At 10% efficiency, this is 100 times our needs. So, we 
need to cover 1% of the convenient land with solar cells to supply *all* the 
industrial power we use now. Assuming the rest of the world grows in demand, 
this might grow to 2%, or shrink if we develop more efficient appliances. 
Also, this is an extreme case, we could heat our homes as mostly 
passive-solar, and have wave energy, geothermal, biofuels, wind, 
solar-thermal, and so on, each making a contribution.

The USA already has 1% or so of land dedicated to roads and rights of way. 
It has 1% dedicated to mining and other fossil fuel production.

> Can we produce protein for 7-10 billion people?  That's the real carrying
> capacity issue IMO you lump under "agriculture".  Right now we do it but at
> huge pollution costs--methane is a major greenhouse gas.  

As for agriculture, see Michel's point on food for 12 billion people on one 
third the land.

With robots, we can farm all land more intensively and more sustainably 
(less pesticides). Use rock dust, human waste, and ocean floor dredging to 
maintain fertility.

> Sea stocks of fish
> are 1/10 what they were in 1950 (source Wolf Berger's recent classic text *
> Ocean*). It will get worse before it gets better.  You are right, much of
> the warm Pacific is a desert.  But the nutrients to fuel algae growth are
> deep.  You'd have to expend energy and resources to get them to the
> surface.  Even algae eats things other than nutrients from photosynthesis.
> Protein and water are very scarce resources.  Both require huge amounts of
> energy, and both create huge amounts of carbon to create or purify.

OTEC plants can pull up nutrients from the deep. Or just pipes with pumps 
powered by Solar PV.

But I agree there is too much fishing, and we need to protect hatcheries and 
have other fishing exclusion zones.

Fish in ponds can increase biodiversity by stirring up mud with their 
swimming. Why not consider humans could make the oceans more diverse with 
more creatures if we gave to the oceans instead of just took?

> So the simple math models are the right road (we seem to agree) but they
> need to add up to stable climate, minimal coercion, minimal lost standard of
> living, minimal loss of hope for improvements to the poor, and minimal
> depletion of resources (i.e. sustainability).  Very hard problem.  Some
> things will be part of a complex solution.  There is not obvious answer.
> And the prospect of failure is, any reasonable person would have to admit,
> quite large.

Well, lots of issues, true. But almost seven billion people to help solve them.

Simple strategy:
* 94% marginal tax on income.
* US$200 per barrel equivalent on fossil fuels
* All those moneys to be distributed nationally (and then globally) as a 
basic income.
* Print money as needed as economy grows (so, inflation neutral) and give it 
out as a basic income as well.
* Big investment into 3D printing and open manufacturing and zero-emissions 
production and recycling.
* Big investment in PV.
* Big fines for negative externalities. Big incentives for positive 
externalities. Big insurance bills for systemic risks created. Another 
general tax on all property of any sort that the state is asked to enforce a 
monopoly on.

If this can't work, then dissolve the state as being useless. :-)

Anyway, the USA used to have a 94% marginal income tax, and Europe has long 
had high taxes on fossil fuels, and a basic income almost passed under Nixon 
around 1970. So, it is all feasible historically.

Of course, none of that is really peer initiatives. Those are all big 
government initiatives. Still, they would create an environment where peer 
initiatives could prosper.

Over the next few decades of such policies, I'd expect the globe would move 
to so much prosperity that money would be on its way to being obsolete. 
(Iain Bankes: "Money is a sign of poverty".)

> P2P has a helper role in all that.  Some see it as a primary role.  I hope
> the latter is true.  I am interested enough to hang around hoping one of our
> collective lunatics comes up with something that matters at scale.  Even if
> they don't, mattering locally is, to my mind, noble and compelling as a way
> to spend your heartbeats.


--Paul Fernhout

More information about the p2presearch mailing list