Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The call of the wild

So, a few days out at the rock and poison ivy farm, as I mentioned earlier, were conducive to reflection about a few things. One thing I thought about was how we live today, compared with how we lived not so very long ago, in the 19th Century. My father was fascinated by 19th Century tools and he had a substantial collection of them, much of which now resides in my barn. These include various kinds of axes, bucksaws, wood shaping tools, and agricultural implements. In Windham County back then, there were some small factories powered by the waters of the Shettucket, but most people were farmers. They used animals to plow and haul, and human muscle to do just about everything else. Life was certainly less comfortable in many ways than it is today, and usually shorter, but the people managed to feed themselves well enough and make it through the longer and colder winters without terrible privation.

Their way of life could have continued, in principle, for millions of years. Their crop residues, excrement, and corpses, and those of their animals, returned to the land. Nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and pottasium cycled continuously among the plants and animals, the system was closed and nothing was used up. (I may be oversimplifying and probably there was some leakage, but it was very slow.)

Nowadays, the human population is literally unsustainable. Energy that once came from the land in the form of human food and animal fodder, and was then renewed by new plant growth, now comes from fossil fuels. But what you may not have thought about is that the nitrogen, pottasium and phosphorus are also no longer generally recycled. They pass through our urine and feces into sewer systems where they are ultimately discharged into the ocean, or they wash off vast muddy farmsteads after harvest into the rivers. One result is that they stimulate vast algae blooms which deplete the oxygen where rivers discharge into the ocean, creating dead zones. Another is that they must be replaced.

Using fossil fuels, we extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, but phosphorus has to be mined. You've heard of peak oil but guess what? We've already hit peak phosphorus, and the consequences could be even more dire. We can replace fossil fuels with wind, sun and biomass, or if need be nuclear fusion, or something. Phosphorus is an element essential to life. There is no substitute.

The reason I bring this up is because hardly anyone ever thinks about it, but mined phosphorus is essential to the sustenance of the human population. If production cannot be sustained, there will be less food. Period. This is a revealing synecdoche for many larger problems that we face.

To be continued.


robin andrea said...

Is there any way that I haven't entirely screwed up the planet? It's one hellishly bad scenario after another.

roger said...

i know from actual experience just how much one person with a shovel can change the topography by digging judiciously during a rainstorm, letting the water do the most work.

love those hand tools.

Cervantes said...

Yeah Rog, I have to try that myself-- have a bit of a drainage problem.