Friday, January 11, 2008

Ecological Technology

Can we solve our current energy crisis in an ecologically friendly manner? Can we gain better understanding on ecological systems when viewed from a technological perspective? The answer is a big yes but only if our intellect is up to the challenge.

By: Ringo Bones and Vanessa Uy

Ecology, the branch of science that deals with the interactions of living organisms and their environment, a term derived from two Greek words which mean ”the study of the home” while technology is the totality of the means employed to provide objects necessary for human sustenance and comfort.

Since humans are the dominant “life form” on this planet, and are viewed as the cause célèbre for all of our ecological problems. Paradoxically, it is us that can only solve the problems that we create in the first place. One of the problems that we face today is our increasing demand for energy generation that is not necessarily environmentally friendly to begin with. How we go about solving this must go hand in hand on how we will protect our environment just to keep our planet habitable in the future. All the energy that mankind utilizes, whether renewable or not, all come from nature. Only a handful of scientists like R. Buckminster Fuller view ecosystems as an interrelationship between matter and energy or more aptly living organisms and energy.

All ecosystems are governed by: “The Laws of Thermodynamics”, this is the relationship between matter and energy in a system. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that “the sum total energy in a system is constant” i.e. energy can neither be created nor destroyed. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that there is a tendency toward entropy or maximum disorganization of a structure and the loss of usable energy. These laws prevent us from formulating an easy solution to our energy problem in an ecologically friendly manner. But first, let’s check out how nature manages energy to sustain an ecosystem.

In autotrophic based ecosystems, the energy that is stored through net primary production by photosynthetic organisms is used to support higher trophic levels. Energy flows only one way through these levels with decreasing amount at each level. The energy that is captured by the autotrophs (photosynthetic plants) does not revert back to the sun. And also; what energy that flows to the herbivore does not flow back to the photosynthetic plants, and so on, as it moves through the various trophic levels, energy is no longer available to the previous level. The important implication of this unidirectional flow of energy in an ecosystem is that the system would collapse if the primary source of energy, like the sun is cut off.

The next major fact to be noted is the progressive decrease in energy at each trophic level. This fact can be explained by the energy lost as heat in metabolic activity and manifests here as respiration. This particular ecosystem also has a large amount of unutilized energy. Even if more of this “unutilized energy” is being used in a more efficient system, there would still be considerable loss due to respiration. Thus, even with more efficient energy utilization, considerable energy would still be required to maintain the system.

These factors-Unidirectional energy flow and inefficient energy utilization-account for the requirement of a steady stream of energy to avoid the collapse of an ecosystem. An ecosystem simply cannot itself when deprived of a source of energy input for an extended period of time.

To know more about this energy flow or how “Mother Nature” does energy management on ecosystems, Vanessa and I studied R. Buckminster Fuller’s thesis about “energy and wealth.” At first we thought that we came to a wrong conclusion. At present, most college physics students are taught the idea that the energy of a closed system remains constant, but as time goes on its entropy always increases. That is, natural processes always tend toward states of increased disorder. Based on what they’re taught, those college students could conclude that what humanity’s been doing is using up our available sources of energy at a rate greater than the ability of our technology to make new sources available. Until solar energy is in use on an everyday basis, humanity had better hang on to our oil, coal, natural gas, and wood.

The more we studied R. Buckminster Fuller’s thesis, the more uncomfortable we felt on his rejection on the second law of thermodynamics as a universal principle. This rejection is based on his own axiom that there are no closed systems-that closed systems; like straight lines or bodies at rest, are like obsolete Aristotelian concepts that hinder, rather than help, our understanding of the universe.

Fuller’s synergetic-energetic geometry is still debatable, of course, and it will probably take another generation of experiments and research before his position on the second law of thermodynamics is truly confirmed or refuted. However, a modification of that law has become generally accepted-and if “most college physics students” does not know about this, most graduate physics students do (like Ringo), this concept was only known to graduate physics students because it is a relatively recent finding. Only college physics students who go out of their way and follow closely the latest trends in the advancement of thermodynamic research can know about this. This refers to the development of general systems theory, which redefines both closed and open systems. While closed systems follow the second law precisely, and entropy increases within them, making less energy usable, open systems operate without this restriction, so that negative entropy (negentropy) may increase, making energy more usable.

As L. Brillouin wrote in American Scientist in 1949:

The second¬ [law] means death by confinement…Many textbooks, even the best of them, are none too cautious when they describe the increase of entropy…The theory of relativity, and all the cosmological, quantum mechanical theories that followed…involve a bold revision and drastic modification of the laws of thermodynamics…The earth is not a closed system…The sentence to “death by confinement” is avoided by living in a world that is not a confined and closed system.

Of course, this does not deny the existence of an ecological problem. It’s because the scientists concerned wish that this problem should be understood correctly, as a misuse of technology, like the increase of “greenhouse gasses” in our atmosphere, rather than a consequence of an inescapable human law. This law is a product of our current understanding of the universe, that Fuller and others have emphasized so urgently that there is nothing in thermodynamics that makes the growing ecological disaster inevitable.

So what does all of this suppose to mean? First the ecological structure of our planet is quite complex that it is very easy for the powers- that- be like industrialist and politicians with the help of scientists in their payroll to refute the existence of global warming. They do this by stating that our current knowledge of the planet’s ecosystem is insufficient or flawed and to contradict to this would take research and experiments that would take so much time and money as to be an anathema to the shaky relations between science and politics. Second, we cannot stop technological progress. The Genie is out of the bottle so we have to deal with it rationally. One viable solution to this problem is to move our less ecologically friendly industries out into space, thus the urgent need for “green energy” to escape the earth’s “gravity well.” This in turn will make it easier for us to turn the entire planet as a nature preserve with us humans as an integral part of it.

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