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.

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Earthlike Planets

I was sitting in one of our church’s groups some weeks ago when someone asked what was the purpose of the cosmos and trillions of suns, and Earthlike planets? The closest example, is there a purpose in Mars being an Earthlike planet, within the range of supporting life with only a little tinkering. (Mars has plenty of water frozen as its North Pole and in its soil (regolith) etc.)  What if there were no other life anywhere in the universe – what would be the point of all that space?

Most of the answers coming back were saying God did it only to demonstrate “his glory.” The way the Bible was being quoted, I got the distinct impression that the way these verses were being interpreted  made it out as if God was a ball hog, a glory hound, someone wanting all the attention. Someone who had an inner need to show off so that people would boost his self-esteem and re-assure him that he was ok after all.

I don’t think that’s why God made everything, I said. First, He is obviously creative and loves to create – He is burgeoning with life and love. But secondly, as to Earthlike planets and all of that – I get my kids gifts all the time that they can’t use yet at this stage of their life. But as they get older and mature, they will be able to enjoy the gift. I get the gift ahead of time, looking down the road to when they will grow into it. People didn’t know how to fish for deepwater toothfish, light cities with whale oil or make electricity for most of human history, but we grew into it. Humanity has been too young (technologically) to make use of Mars (and farther places) up until now, but perhaps God made all those good places/gifts for us to enjoy once we’ve matured enough to know how. Of course, this requires a long, not short, view of human history both theologically and chronologically.

Some very fun reads on this subject include (from a large and growing amount of writing on the subject)

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

The Case for Mars  and Entering Space by Robert Zubrin

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

And the spectacular novels Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson