Hot Oceans

As the world population grows, and as (hopefully) larger numbers of people move from deep poverty into better living situations, we have to deal with the build-up of toxins in the biosphere. (For a discussion of carrying capacity see the previous post). The old adage the solution to pollution is dilution has limits based on the size of the container and the amount of toxins. As we saw two posts ago, a simple calculus used by environmental engineering is

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

We have to keep this in mind because, for all intents and purposes, (the bleed-off from the troposphere being so slight), we need to treat Earth as a closed system, in which we need to avoid piling up toxins too fast for the natural ecosystems to mitigate in their regular, natural rates. If we surpass this natural rate of breakdown to useful components, then we have to find ways to mitigate/ break down the toxins ourselves. For Christians with a biblical theology, this should be a conversation they deem important.

One of those things we are building up at a faster mass rate of input than the biosphere is handling, is heat. The amount of carbon being piled up in the upper atmosphere, acting with a greenhouse effect, is increasing the temperature in our world. Although Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have convinced huge numbers of Americans that this isn’t really happening, every government in the world is scrambling trying to draw up plans to deal with this climate change. They are scared to death at what it means for crop failure, and nations with large coastal populations in low elevations see the writing on the wall. (Some South Pacific islands no longer have human populations, they’ve had to leave as their island is no longer above sea level – this is what happens when glaciers melt at the rate they are.) You can read about how the various gasses interact and feedback on NASA’s website here

The oceans are a telltale for the mass rate of input, in terms of heat, changing things about our planet. Ocean temperatures right now are breaking all historical records. Summer of 2014 was the highest ever recorded (Axel Timmermann, professor of Oceanography, U. of Hawaii). The Atlantic’s surface temps are now 3 degrees hotter than 30 years ago. NOAA reports that fish species are moving north and south away from the tropics, pushed by the change in temps. Inuit tribes north of Alaska do not have a word in their language for salmon, as they’ve never seen one. Until now. Half of the 36 species of fish we eat for food have shifted northward and further offshore in the last four decades, some no longer found in U.S. waters. When one species moves (due to temps) and their whole ecological food chain doesn’t move with them, disasterous population crashes can occur. Fishery managers are seeing alarming results of this kind of thing, and fearing it is going to get far worse. Widespread failures in cod reproduction have already occurred. A 20% crash in worldwide tuna harvest in the visible future. If anyone wants to argue heat isn’t building up faster than the planet deals with it, simply speak with an oceanographer or saltwater fisheries scientist. We need to be serious in considering this heat build-up if we want thriving oceans with stable, healthy ecosystems we can fish. Christians, who believe the Creator instructed humanity to steward, rule over, and care for this planet, have a moral obligation inherent in our faith to care about this subject, and go beyond taking the word of talented radio entertainers.

Sources: NOAA, Scripps Institute, Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research (Germany), James Cook University (Australia), National Marine Fisheries Service, Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology, University of British Columbia, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Jason Schratwieser/ Sportfishing July/August 2016

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.

Wendell Berry

In our increasingly ecologically-aware age, more and more people are asking themselves How can we live well, and sustainably, on this planet in the long haul? How can we feed billions of people and maintain the health of our planet’s ecosystem, our own well-being societally and physiologically, and the fertility and usability of our farmlands? These kinds of questions are dovetailed into many things, including our increasing awareness that the health of our bodies is directly impacted by the healthiness of our foods, which are in turn directly impacted by the health of the soil in which they are grown – and our mental and emotional well-being is likewise impacted by the health of our bodies, the health of our society and world all around us.

Growing numbers of Christians are coming to believe these questions are an express interest of Christian theology as well. Since the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, and mankind’s first and explicit vocation in the story of Scripture is to tend the natural world and be its steward, more and more of us are talking about the state and health of our world – and what we do to impact and shape that – as a high importance Christian concern.

For people like that, Wendell Berry is a rich, vibrant resource. Berry is a Christian, a poet (Kentucky’s laureate), a prolific author, an agrarian philosopher, and a farmer. He has farmed the same 200 acres in Kentucky for the last 50 years. As a social commentator reflecting on the natural world he reminds me at times of John Burroughs, Annie Dillard, Henry Beston, Muir, Thoreau, and others of America’s great nature writers. For people thinking about health, food, how we produce food, and the world’s future, Berry’s agrarian essays are a must read. They are profound, full of wit and humor and an artist’s sense of pacing, tone and detail.

And we need to think about them. Berry contends that approaching the natural/biological world of farming and food with the industrial, mechanical mindset of the Industrial Revolution has created industrial-scale agri-business that is increasingly and alarmingly less and less healthy for the soil itself, the land, the nutritional value of our food, the ecosystems of our planet, and the wholeness and health of our own bodies and communities. Yes, we have produced more quantities of food. But the long-term effects on our soil, communities, farmers, ecosystems and bodies are, he contends, not worth it. He is calling for a re-think and re-set in the way we farm and live. And he believes we can farm in ways that are healthy, diverse, enriching the land, soil, people – and even good for the farmers themselves – and the multitude of businesses which we have lost in uber-scale food production. I highly recommend his book Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food. It is only one of many, but he pulls a lot of things together there.