You Can’t Fool Mother Nature

When I entered this world, in the mid-1950’s, the earth held about 2.7 billion people. This is the wondrous time people are calling for the US to return to, since we were “great” then. As of today, we are nearing and may have gone over 8 billion people on this planet. Unfortunately, the rules that were possible with a population of 2.7 billion, become unmanageable when there are 8 billion people on the planet.

Just think of the issues we face now which were not problems in the mid-1950’s. We now face many existential crises, and even still face the one we thought we had put behind us, that of nuclear conflict. The seas are becoming deserts as huge trawlers scrape all living creatures into their maws. The lungs of the planet are now succumbing to clear-cutting and soybean cultivation in Brasil, led by a mad-man who refuses to acknowledge the limits of our planet. In the US, population pressures in distant lands have led to an unstoppable tide of those wishing to claim refugee status within our borders. And everywhere we suffer from the natural byproduct of civilization, that is carbon dioxide, along with a refusal by many to believe in the laws of thermodynamics. So be it. Those who claim college educations are worthless deserve to come up against the inexorable power of nature, and suffer the inevitable horrible consequences. All that is left is for those of us who are educated to say “I told you so”. A poor response to deal with the human carnage set to come when the effects of global warming become more pronounced.

In so many ways, we are dealing with national governments which refuse to take a holistic view of the world situation. So many folks still believe we live in a world with only 2.5 billion people, rather than the real world which holds 8 billion humans. Whether it is the retrograde Republicans in the US, or the near-sighted populists of Brasil, or the newly-minted electoral majority in Italy trying to channel Mussolini, political movements across the globe are imitating flightless birds sticking their heads in the sand. By refusing to admit the world has changed, they are subjecting their followers towards the inevitable crisis as they drive their car off of the mesa and do a swan dive towards the ground below. So where do we find those who are really trying to deal with the problems of the present which will make our future untenable?

First, we must begin to listen to those of us who are screaming about physical limits inherent on the earth. There are certainly folks who recognize limits to systems on the earth, though their voices seem swallowed up by those who preach the gospel of prosperity. Many people renounced the mantra of bigger is better, and have gone towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Back in the 1970’s, those folks were characterized as tree-huggers, since they advocated and lived a simplistic lifestyle off of the grid. Now it is possible to be off-the-grid, yet still be connected to the world through solar cells. Yet we still see those new subdivisions built in places never intended to house large numbers of humans, places where the first unpleasant reality is a lack of water. A small encouraging sign has appeared in states like Arizona and Nevada. There legislation was enacted which removes the abilities of Home Owner Associations to require grass lawns. Note there is nothing that requires a more sensible landscape for desert cities, just that people may not be compelled to use immense quantities of water to maintain grass. I am quite certain that those who opt out of a green lawn still may face peer pressure to keep up their conspicuous consumption of water, and their spigots turned on.

If we are having to fight for common sense through legislative actions even for a resource as limited and as visible as water, what hope do we have in convincing large segments of the population to repudiate ongoing use of fossil fuels? Well, we can try to educate. At least some people may be convincible, especially since the world is changing in more visible ways. People look at fossil fuels as being the only effective sources of energy for humanity. But those who claim that do not have a clue that any combustion process has a thermodynamic limitation of efficiency. No combustion process can have an efficiency much greater than 50% due to the laws of nature. Therefore, in all combustion processes, whether an internal combustion engine used for transportation, or a steam power plant, fully half or more of the energy of combustion gets transformed into waste heat. Maybe you can harness some of that waste heat for other human needs, but that costs additional money, and is seldom used on a year-round basis.

Renewable energy is decried for being unreliable and diffuse, and requiring energy storage devices in order to ensure energy availability when needed. Maybe so, but an electron generated from a solar cell does not have the same thermodynamic limitation as energy from fossil fuels. And when it is produced at the same location as it is consumed, transmission losses become minimal. Only the inverter loss (about 10-20%) represents energy lost from solar cells vs. 50% from combustion. So solar energy has a head start on other energy sources used in mass plants and then distributed.

Wind energy is truly variable, and at the scale it is built at, either large energy storage systems are required, or alternative sources of energy aimed at load leveling are required in order to take advantage of this energy source. Once more though, electrons produced through wind energy are fully available to the electrical grid after going through an inverter.

Yes, but fossil fuels are macho! That seems to be the argument underpinning many of those who champion continued and unlimited use of fossil fuels. I don’t know about you, but climbing up some of those 300’ towers to service a windmill seems macho enough to me. Fossil fuels are somehow viewed as our right to use, regardless of any ill effects. Well, it seems we now know it is not a good thing to rejigger our atmosphere and reintroduce all of the carbon sequestered over the millions of years in a blink of a geological eye. But to those who say, we were given dominion over this planet, I say, I agree. And it is about time we use what we have learned to prevent a giant bollocks while we still have time.

Silent Spring at 60

Chemical structure of DDT

So I am only about 60 years late. I finally read Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, and since I worked for decades in the agricultural chemicals industry, I have some thoughts about this book and all that it has inspired. What I find amazing about Carson’s work is how applicable it is to the world of today.

Rachel Carson wrote about the effects of the first generation of organic herbicides and pesticides. Those molecules were brute-force bludgeons against insects and weeds, with little discrimination against target species and collateral damage. Her description of the effects of indiscriminate spraying, coupled with the effects of resistance building in the insect populations, is just as valid today as it was when the book was written. And the praise she had for integrated pest management was also well ahead of its time (or maybe we are just now realizing how right it was).

I chose to get involved in the agricultural chemicals arena. I accepted a transfer within my company, and one of the reasons was that the new generation of herbicides was manufactured at my new plant in West Virginia. It took a few years, but I was finally employed by the ag side of the plant. At that time our main herbicide was a truly specific offering, one that dealt with weeds but did not spread beyond where it was applied. It was something that fulfilled Rachel Carson’s dream, a chemical solution which did not cause collateral damage. Unfortunately, this was the time when Monsanto began to offer their solution of RoundUp Ready® products. These products offered the farmer a one-stop service, where they could spray a field with herbicide, knowing it would not bother the seedlings planted there which had been genetically modified for herbicide resistance.

We very quickly lost market share, and our good offering which I was proud of supporting, soon became yesterday’s news. We ended up licensing the technology for this genetically modified solution ourselves, and this allowed us to recapture a bit of market share though reducing our profits due to the licensing costs. But guess what? Farmers were supposed to vary their herbicides every couple of years to help prevent weeds from gaining resistance to the herbicide. The problem was that Monsanto offered such an easy solution for the farmers, what with its opportunity for no-till agriculture, very few farmers rotated herbicides. They tended to use the same one year after year.

Guess what happened? Weeds began to gain resistance. So now you had fields with certain intransigent weeds peeking up through the intended crops, and the agricultural chemical companies sought a solution. Even though we still offered our environmentally friendly herbicides, the lure of no-till agriculture was now thoroughly embedded in the minds of farmers. So the answer developed was to add resistance to a second chemical in the seeds of crops. Monsanto / Bayer came up with an offering where their plants were resistant to RoundUp® and Dicamba, and their chemical offering was a blend of those two chemicals. Unfortunately, Dicamba would evaporate, especially in the warmth of the southern US, and its effects were felt far from the application site, causing uncontrolled damage.  And, again, if farmers use this product exclusively, weeds will once again grow resistant to both chemicals. This will probably result in yet another chemical being added to the mix to aid the farmers in their attempt to eliminate tilling while still resulting in high crop yields.

I would have hoped that my company would have been more responsible, and come up with a solution requiring little additional chemical application. But no, my company’s preferred solution was to genetically modify the seed to become resistant to RoundUp® and one of the first generation of chlorinated hydrocarbons, 2,4 – D (2,4 – Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). So the chemical arms race continued to run amuck, with the original goal of reduced chemical application long forgotten. I retired before this new product could be marketed, but I definitely did not like the direction we were heading towards.

The chemical race continues on insecticides as well. The first generation of broad-spectrum, chlorinated hydrocarbons, or the organophosphorus insecticides, were replaced by biodegradable compounds aimed at disrupting the life cycles of the insect targets. But even in the newer age of chemical warfare against insects, unintended consequences keep on popping up. The class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids has achieved broad use. Unfortunately, the effects on pollinators, both domestic honeybees, and wild bees, was much greater than expected. In addition, insects in general have been reduced, with unknown impact still to come from those portions of the ecosystem which depend upon insects for their food. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring may yet come about again, due to birds starving and being unable to raise new generations of young.

The dream of integrated pest management Rachel Carson espoused has yet to come to pass. Speaking as one who was greatly invested in the business, as long as there is profit to be had from chemical application, companies will prefer to go after that profit instead of solving the real problems facing society. We still have a long way to go before we come up with ways to co-exist with the natural world instead of trying to compete and conquer those species we consider as our enemies.

A personal note here – Rachel Carson received her undergraduate degrees at the Pennsylvania College for Women. This institution changed its name over the years to Chatham College. It is there where my wife received her bachelor’s degree with a double-major in music and English. She is proud of her college’s famous graduate. What’s more, it is apparent that the city of Pittsburgh, home to this educational institution, is also proud since one of the bridges in downtown across the Alleghany River is named the Rachel Carson Bridge. In Pittsburgh there are three bridges connecting the North Side to downtown. Those bridges are the Rachel Carson Bridge, the Andy Warhol Bridge, and the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Truly an iconic mix of honorees reflecting on the eclectic mix of people associated with the city of Pittsburgh.