Environmental Systems Calculus*

When we talk about the human habitation of Earth today, we want quantitative understandings of the planet’s carrying capacity. Materials and energy balances are key tools in achieving a quantitative understanding of the behavior of environmental systems.  They serve as a method of accounting for the flow of energy and materials into and out of a system.  Mass balances provide us with a tool for modeling the production, transport, and fate of things like pollutants or resources in an environment… examples of mass balances include prediction of rainwater runoff, oxygen balance in a stream, the temperature change in a river from the discharge of cooling water from a power plant, or the temperature rise due to global warming.

In its simplest form a materials or mass balance may be viewed as an accounting balance. For an environmental process the equation would be

Accumulation = input – output.

There are both known and unknown inputs, outputs, and accumulations in system modeling, but the mass balance should account for and solve the amount of unknown inputs and outputs.

Time is also a factor: For many environmental problems time is an important factor in establishing the degree of severity of the problem or in designing a solution. Another simple equation from environmental engineering:

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output

In plug-flow systems, a calculus equation can tell you how many km of pipe is needed to decontaminate a certain amount of polluted water as it flows through the pipe with a catalyst inserted. This kind of rate-of-flow-and-conversion is another calculation we need in order to understand our carrying capacity as a planet.

So, our situation is this. As human civilization has grown and continues to, we are increasing the inputs of some things in the system at a rate that outpaces the output. At the same time, we have a hard time calculating the availability and sustainability of some of the key resources – estimates have been wrong time and again. Likewise, we don’t know the tipping point of some processes, since we’ve never been to this spot before. More on what this means for our future as humans on this planet, and how theology affects our calculations, next time.

* Intro to Environmental Engineering Fourth edition (Davis & Cornwell). My family includes an environmental engineer.

Fritz Schumacher’s 1973 ‘Small is Beautiful’

I’ve been reading an interesting book lately: E.F. “Fritz” Schumacher’s 1973 Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. Schumacher was a British economist for England’s coal industry. His book argues that economics, and institutions in general, should be built upon a “human scale.” Schumacher observed that our modern human institutions tend to grow to such a scale that they are like frankenstein monsters which grow so large that they come back upon their masters and devour them (my image, not his). Another way you could put it is that our economies/institutions/etc cease being our servants and instead become our masters. Sudddenly the humans don’t matter in the decision-making, it’s the self-perpetuation of the larger structures we’ve created. Our creations come to lord it over us and be too big for us to control or direct in a way to promote human thriving.

It’s a very interesting book, and one that drew quite a bit of interest in the world of economists and international development policy makers back when it was written.

Schumacher argues for things like:

De-centralized, local decision making that takes the long-term good of the community as its goal, not short-term profits for a select few in some faraway metropolis.

A critique of systems that grow too gigantic or destructive of human and ecological well-being.

The need for some limiting principle, to enable a society at some point to legitimately say “enough!”

The recognition that economic profit is not the grounding, priniciple manner to gauge human well-being and the failure of modern economic thought to calculate non-economic factors into policy-makers’ decisions

The concept of intermediate technology – simple, nonviolent and controllable – (or, simple, cheap, small, safe): useful in the local situation and not forcing us to develop giant schemes

A changed view of labor and production where work is elevated to a vocation and labor and ownership aren’t mutually contradictory antagonists

The contention that Third World poverty is a question of “two million villages,” as Gandhi argued, and thus that concentrated endeavors in urban settings merely concentrated the benefits into the hands of a very select few, and the villages stayed in abject poverty

The contention that humanity should adapt within Earth’s ecosystems instead of trying to dominate (and typically destroy) them

The need to return to the Four Cardinal virtues:  prudential, justitia, fortitudo, and temperantia

As I said, it’s a very interesting read, and I’ll include some excerpts in the next few blogs.