It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Anthropocene Images and their Messages

It's worthwhile to try to visualize the anthropocene, and photography is a good way to do it.

Here for instance is my own image of the anthropocene stratum being formed in a gorge in New Mexico:

A parking lot at the top of the cliff apparently had collapsed some years ago, and the cars are sinking into the earth forming an iron deposit of an idiosyncratic sort. What we dig out of the earth eventually goes back into the earth. It has nowhere else to go. So if humanity fades from the scene, the modern era will be explicitly represented geologically by the earth swallowing our detritus again. (Click on the image for more detail.)

Much of our quandary needs to be expressed in abstract ways. People are so easily impressed by big numbers that aren't that big.

("Every year, Alaska loses some 75,000,000 tons of ice" I read recently. Why, that's enough to raise sea level by 5 microns!)

UPDATE: For what it's worth the real number should be 75,000,000,000 per 20 years. 25 mm/century in other words if my math holds. It's not an important number in any case, but bigger than I made out. The Himalayan ice may be a bit more important, but the real sea level story remains thermal expansion and the big ice sheets. I think the Facebook claim I saw was twice garbled.

Similarly, pictures of environmental awfulness need to be accompanied by some though into how widespread they are.

There's a series of pictures that's gotten some play in Facebook circles here.  Some just represent large problems, while others demonstrate them. This for instance is an unequivocal horror:

while this could represent a huge problem or not; we have to provide context ourselves:

(My aesthetic sensibilities prevent me from reposting the horrifying #15.)

But what are we to make of these two images, of Mexico City and Los Angeles?

Well, there sure are a lot of us, yep. But given that, is this sort concentration of humanity a problem? Maybe it's a solution! If we live closer together, we can share resources more effectively.

It's widely known that whatever else there is to being a Manhattanite, it comes with a much lower environmental footprint than anywhere else in America, with places like Boston and Chicago forming the second tier. Granted this sort of bird's eye view is sort of scary, but given that there are billions of us, isn't this the right way for us to live?

But then there was one image in the set, intended after all to be as mortifying as possible, to shake the viewer into some sort of radicalism, one image to which my response was unequivocally favorable. Maybe I'm odd about this. It's this one, captioned "The area around Almeria in Spain is littered with greenhouses as far as the eye can see – simply for a richly filled dinner table."

Assuming that really is what we are seeing here, so how is that a problem? Imagine how much more land and resources this agriculture would take done out in the open.

I'm not convinced by this idea that plowed-field agriculture is in any way "natural", that an agrarian landscape is particularly sustainable or delightful. (The endless cornfields of bizarrely flat Illinois are a particular horror, actually, as I look at it. I have nightmares about them.)

(via Wikimedia)

So regarding "greenhouses as far as the eye can see – simply for a richly filled dinner table"?

Yeah! More please!

I think it's not an easy question whether, in the end, agriculture has not done more environmental damage than heavy industry. Certainly it's not heavy industry that depleted the soil or displaced most of the world's biodiversity with monocultures. If we can pack ourselves into small spaces, so much the better. I think the same holds for our crops.

What's more, the more we rely on traditional agricultural methods, the more we are at risk from climate change. Indoor solar-powered agriculture recycles water, saves land and thereby preserves habitat, stops soil erosion, and increases resilience to the climate shocks that are coming.

I just don't buy into the back-to-the-land plan. It's way too late for that. Are greenhouses really so terrible?


Anonymous said...

Good grief, that picture of Mexico City is liable to invade my nightmares.

As to your question of whether greenhouses are any worse than typical row crop agriculture, I would venture an answer of "no," seeing as how seawater greenhouses can desalinate their own water.

Adam R.

Rob Ryan said...

I went to those "Deep Ecology" photos. Many were disturbing but the one that caught my attention (and caused my greatest revulsion) was this one. A close second wasthis.

But the coal fired plant was misleading, most of what you see is not combustion product but rather vapor from the 11 (!) cooling towers. But there was horror galore in those pictures. I don't know why those tires can't be used in cement manufacturing facilities, that's done frequently and saves burning natural gas to calcine the limestone.

I've heard it referred to as "self-poisoning." It was first modeled, I believe, early in the 20th century when bacteria failed to reach equilibrium as growth models had predicted and crashed to zero instead. Volterra and Kostitzin modeled the crashing with an integro-differential equation where the derivative terms represent growth and the integral term represents accumulated poison (in our case, air pollution, water pollution, refuse in landfills, soil depletion, garbage in the ocean, deforestation, carbon dioxide, whatever else). I read of a model that showed population peaking in 2050, falling to under 1 billion by 2200, and to 0 no later than 2500. Happy reading.

Michael Tobis said...

"greatest revulsion" - yeah, that's the one. I want my websites to not be totally unpleasant to the eye.

As for the picture - there's also a question of veracity. It's hard to believe that it's real. If it is, that species is toast, I figure. But I think it could be fake.

So I also want to resist being a vector for BS.

Florifulgurator said...

The megacity is more a necessity than a solution (as often in the history of Homo Sapiens and its solutions). It seems the city is not only pulling the rug (earth) from under people's feet (mind), but also a real breeding place for mental illness (but expert opinion varies). So, methinks it's a kind of amplifying feedback on the core problem of the Late Homo S "Sapiens": Having lost touch with the living earth.

Luckily this is not a dichotomy. Considerable living space and work can be left outside the city wall: Some folks have to produce the food. So, the call is less "back to nature" but "back to the farm" - sustainable small-scale carbon-negative farming embedded in a grid of natural reserves.

I can imagine a life style of regular change between city and nature. I love forests and meadows and pigs, but also the library, jazz concertos, and a dentist.

Michael Tobis said...

You miss my point, Flor. I imagine you disagree with it, but I'd prefer you understood it.

Farming is not back to nature. Hunting and gathering is back to nature. Farming is technology.

Like with any technology, the lower impact version is more complex but more sustainable. I'm suggesting that a family farm is a Model T Ford and a greenhouse is a Tesla.

Yes, the person with the old Ford is in closer contact with the technology, but that person is also doing more damage.

Florifulgurator said...

A Model T Ford needs way less material and energy to build and maintain than a Tesla. More complex technology is not necessarily better technology. Same with farms: I know a small organic family farm here in Bavaria that produces mostly gourmet pigs (no other way to make money and keep afloat). Their ecologic impact is way smaller (per area) than other farms. They planted hedge rows, they leave "windows" in the field for some rare ground breeding bird, the cows roam meadows with amazing plant diversity. MOST IMPORTANT, soil carbon content is slowly rising since they turned organic. Recently I ate a chicken that was allowed to live like in olden times: What a difference in taste! Compared to this, CAFO chicken are just toxic meat garbage.

Another point of the small family farm is jobs and food sovereignty. Globally, most farms still are small family farms.

I know the tomatoes from those Spanish plastic greenhouses. Better than Holland greenhouse garbage, but still bad. I can't eat them. And I know why since I got my first edible tomato in rural Romania.

But yes, greenhouses are not necessarily bad: There's a gigantic greenhouse not far from here, using geothermal heating, and their tomatoes are quite tasty (Not those industrial high-yield breeds. But grown on imported coconut fibres. No carbon sequestration there. 2013 you showed me a graphic of the Bavarian rain bullseye: it was right there.)

Michael Tobis said...

"A Model T Ford needs way less material and energy to build and maintain than a Tesla."

Not necessarily. Old tech tends to be made of heavy construction steel. A lot of embodied energy. What it needs more of is skill, and organization.

I am all in favor of very small scale intensive agriculture when possible - backyard chickens etc.

Can this feed everyone? I think Smil would say not. So if we are going to have factory farms, I'd rather they be factory-shaped, and have tight controls over inflows and outflows. I suspect the agrarian fantasy is not a practicable goal for a 10-billion person world. I'm pretty sure it isn't in an intense climate change scenario.