Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries



[Update 10/9/2010: A study was just published in Science (click here for full text--$ub reqd) that parallels a study published in Nature earlier]

Apparently, we've punched through three of those boundaries already, two of them big time. See here. You can read the entire paper in the journal Nature here.

Now, largely because of a rapidly growing reliance on fossil fuels and industrialized forms of agriculture, human activities have reached a level that could damage the systems that keep Earth in the desirable Holocene state.


Note that of the two causes listed, one of them is industrial agriculture, which is also wholly dependent on fossil fuels. I don't have the answer but it surely isn't mixing the products of industrial agriculture with fossil fuels and burning the unholy union in our SUVs.

What image does the term "industrialized forms of agriculture" conjure-up in your mind? I suspect that for most Americans it's corn. For me it is biofuel, which in America is synonymous with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel. In Europe it might be wheat (Hunger for biofuels will gobble up wheat surplus), in Kenya it might be jatropha (How a Biofuel 'Miracle' Ruined Kenyan Farmers), in Tanzania it could be just about anything (Public Fury Halts Biofuel Onslaught On Farmers), in Indonesia, the world's fourth third largest GHG emitter, palm oil will soon drive the wild orangutan to extinction and in South America, sugarcane is king.

We have tried to identify the Earth-system processes and associated thresholds, which, if crossed, could generate unacceptable environmental change.


The nine processes that define these planetary boundaries are as follows:

1) climate change
2) rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine)
3) interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles
4) stratospheric ozone depletion
5) ocean acidification
6) global freshwater use
7) change in land use
8) chemical pollution
9) atmospheric aerosol loading

Items 1, 2 and 3 have already exceeded the boundaries, and not by just a little bit.

Records of Earth history show that large-scale ocean anoxic events occur when critical thresholds of phosphorus inflow to the oceans are crossed. This potentially explains past mass extinctions of marine life.


The air we breath is about 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen. The nitrogen is mostly inert, just taking up space in our lungs. We 6.7 billion human beings (soon to be 9 billion) have been grabbing this harmless nitrogen gas in the air and turning it into harmful nitrogen compounds. Sewage from both human beings and our domesticated animals and agricultural runoff from nitrogen fertilizers (another form of sewage) all ends up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

We are killing the oceans:

At about 400 locations worldwide, agricultural fertilizer and other pollutants flowing into rivers and deltas have created underwater conditions so low in oxygen that aquatic life can't survive. These locations are called dead zones …If we did no biofuels, and we just allowed for food production to increase …you still can't meet the hypoxia goals in the Gulf of Mexico. You still need to take mitigation actions even if we didn't produce biofuels.




The above photo shows trails of mud behind fishing trawlers as they scrape the bottom of the Gulf.

You can't kill the oceans and expect life on land as we know it to survive. It has happened before. The geologic record has shown that. It is called anoxia. The oceans lose their ability to hold enough oxygen to keep anaerobic bacteria at bay. These organisms emit things like sulfur compounds (the rotten egg smell) instead of CO2 as metabolism waste products and will kill all oxygen breathing lifeforms in the oceans.

Today's biofuels simultaneously exacerbate biodiversity loss and the nitrogen putrefaction of oceans and waterways, all the while releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases that had been locked up in forest and grassland carbon sinks to boot. How stupid is that? If you've been holding your breath waiting for politicians to save us, well, you can at least exhale now.

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8 comments:

hozed said...

Wow. having grown up on a farm, I've had mixed feelings about corn & soybeans. I have also been very suspicious about the hype about Jatropha, and the articles coming out now confirm it.

The solution to this whole mess is going to have to come from farmers, not be mandated by government, or hyped by some activists that show up once a year for a photo-op.

Whatever problems there are with corn ethanol, it's worth noting that the industry was *started* by farmers investing in the first plants. There are ways to fix the problems with corn ethanol... using biomass to fuel the ethanol plants, for one, and using wind energy to make ammonia fertilizer for second.

What I really need to find though, is a good way to monitor nitrogen runoff from fields.. We've got a serious problem, and to fix it is going to require observation, measurement, and critical thinking.. which seems to be of short supply in the environmental community that talks up how great being a vegetarian is, yet doesn't know where there electricity or fuel come from.

Russ Finley said...

"..We've got a serious problem, and to fix it is going to require observation, measurement, and critical thinking..which seems to be of short supply in the environmental community.."

You got that right, hozed but other than the scientific community, what community is not in short supply of those commodities? That is where the internet could save us, by educating all communities (monkey troops).

MR said...

Simple! The biggest constraint to prevent our impending ecological doom is in just changing the whole social-economic structure of the entire world population! Oh, did I mention we have to do this virtually overnight?

None of our economic or social structures have any basis in, or relationship to, on how our activities affect the ecology of our biosphere. What is more important, most people simply do not consider these e-factors as they go about seeking the survival of themselves and their families, or if they do, they are very low on their list of priorities.

Fixing the problem of nitrogen run-off from fields is simple: stop using artificial nitrogen, and transform agriculture to no-till perennial crops, or surround fields of needed annual crops with run-off absorbent, no-till perennial crops. The creative use of biodiversity is probably the only solution to industrial agriculture.

The biggest constraint to doing this appears to be the resistance of those who have a vested interest in continuing industrial agriculture, and the support they have from a population that expects to pay below cost for its food supply. How else can we afford all those marvelous gadgets, cars, clothes, winter cruises, and stuff that are hawked to us every minute of every day?

Anonymous said...

Fantastic blog, I hadn't come across biodiversivist.blogspot.com earlier during my searches!
Keep up the superb work!

Anonymous said...

I wrote formal white papers on the issues contained within the concept of Industrial Metabolism - about 6 years ago. This article is an example where limited research and perspective results in limited solutions.

Industrial agriculture is not dependent on fossil fuels and the migration to 2nd generation feedstock sourced biodiesel is in full swing. The author of this article also obviously has not visited well-managed jatropha or yellowhorn orchards (34M acres today) and he probably still believes the micro algae solution is still a decade away.

Many if not most of the major cities in the US dump their treated waste water into rivers or directly into our oceans. The phosphates contained in human waste are therefore directly or indirectly delivered to the oceans along with the run-off of agricultural fertilizers where micro algae consume this material and sequester these critical minerals on the sea floor. The logistics of "mining" the mineral rich micro algae miles deep and miles out in the "Dead Zones" off the US coastlines and at the mouth of the Mississippi river would be challenging. Many nations around the world are beginning to capture these minerals as a part of their waste water treatment processes.

The only real-world solution we have to address this nitrogen/phosphate problem (short of population reduction) includes a comprehensive Industrial Metabolic cycle.

Today's advanced 2nd generation feedstock will produce biodiesel to fuel ground, air and sea going vehicles for at least several hundred years at current fuel volume levels. This same biodiesel production infrastructure will also provide the mechanism for sustained agriculture in that the husks of the micro algae that have absorbed these minerals including phosphorus, will then be used as recyclable agricultural fertilizer.

Too many people are focused on narrow band aspects of the over-all problem. EV's, for example, are a narrow band solution for one aspect of the over-all problem.

Continued in the next post...

Anonymous said...

Continued from last post... 2 of 3

The only real-world solution we have to address this nitrogen/phosphate problem (short of population reduction) includes a comprehensive Industrial Metabolic cycle.

Today's advanced 2nd generation feedstock will produce biodiesel to fuel ground, air and sea going vehicles for at least several hundred years at current fuel volume levels. This same biodiesel production infrastructure will also provide the mechanism for sustained agriculture in that the husks of the micro algae that have absorbed these minerals including phosphorus, will then be used as recyclable agricultural fertilizer.

Too many people are focused on narrow band aspects of the over-all problem. EV's, for example, are a narrow band solution for one aspect of the over-all problem.

It is important to understand that every ton of micro algae grown absorbs 2 tons of CO2 and that virtually every drop of petroleum started out as micro algae. Basically, the choice to use biofuels over EV technologies as the primary infrastructure for transportation is committing to operate within the Industrial Metabolic cycles that have evolved for billions of years.

No one is seriously suggesting that commercial and military aircraft and ocean going ships will ever migrate to battery powered electric motors. Moving ground transportation to EV's dilutes the R&D and capital funding resources to establish a new transportation infrastructure to replace petroleum.

The biofuels infrastructure solution at once solves the transportation fuel problem, creates a more sustainable agricultural cycle, provides a low cost substitute for the majority of petroleum products and reduces CO2 in the biosphere which will slow and may eventually reverse global warming.

Continued in the next post...

Anonymous said...

continued from previous post ... 3 of 3

As four of the last five economic recessions, including the current recession have been the direct result of petroleum pricing, this solution also stabilizes world economies.

It can be argued that solutions which utilize massive volumes of minerals such as EV and Hybrid technologies actually contribute to world conflict based on the limited and dwindling supply of raw materials necessary to manufacture and sustain those rare mineral intense infrastructures.

Favor high yield biofuel crops (>500 gallons/acre/yr), replace virtually all engines with advanced diesel technology targeting B100 fuels and retool the petroleum refineries for maximum diesel yield production.

For more information and links:

http://etcgreen.com

Russ Finley said...

The anonymous poster above and I recently concluded a debate down in the comment field in this Grist article.