The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World is a series of case studies looking at what happened when organized pre-industrial administrative states or globalized markets came in contact with other human societies with less organizational capacity and power. It was a little dry, but I really liked the diversity of examples and the way they fed into each other, knitting together almost 300 years of history, from about 1500 to 1800. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wonders what the global economy looked like in its awkward teenage years.
This is the first time that all the disparate parts of the human world became connected persistently, with flows of information, material resources, pathogens, culture and people growing almost continuously throughout. Communication and travel weren’t fast, but they were reliable enough that people kept doing them, and built huge economic and cultural and political structures around globe-spanning trade. Capital markets that vaguely resemble what we have today were starting to form. The state and market apparatus were sophisticated enough in some places to wield huge collective resources in very focused ways, impacting huge populations and natural resource stocks, even for what seem like kind of trivial ends. European fashion trends and status hierarchies nearly drove the North American beaver to extinction, dramatically reshaping the watersheds of half a continent.
I read Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life as a followup to The Hidden Life of Trees. I wanted to get deeper into the fungal side of the forest’s story. However, mycorrhizal relationships are just a small part of what this book explores.
For me the wildest parts of this story had to do with the ability of fungi to process information and react appropriately. They appear to be more actively engaged in the world than plants, and in some ways almost resemble animals. This study published in Nature in 2019 found that fungi had a sense of direction and some kind of memory. The researchers put a small block of wood inoculated with a fungus into an environment where it could grow and explore and eventually discover another block of wood. Then they’d remove the original block of wood and put it in a new environment, and they found that the mycelium would continue preferentially growing and exploring in the direction that had led to the “bait” before!
After reading Metazoa I wanted to explore a different branch of our phylogenetic tree, and so picked up The Hidden Life of Trees. It’s a bunch of short anecdotes about the ecology of European beech forests, which is an awfully niche thing to write a book about. But then it did make the NY Times bestseller list in 2016.
I knew that this book probably wasn’t written for me, but the material is definitely cool, and I wanted to compare its style with Metazoa. Both books are trying to communicate a collection of scientific findings that border on the mystical. What makes a mind? How do ancient trees communicate through a living internet? And they both end up anthropomorphizing their very non-human subjects. Peter Godfrey-Smith makes it very clear up front that he’s a materialist. Wohlleben is much harder to pin down. I was never able to tell if he literally believes the things he’s saying, or if it’s a literary device. Normally this would get some eyerolls from me, but like I said, I don’t think I’m the intended audience. Clearly the book connected with a huge audience and successfully diffused these ideas into public consciousness.
Forests are much more communicative and cooperative communities than we’d previously thought, filled with an almost social drama playing out over centuries instead of decades. Different species share both information and materials, sometimes with kin, sometimes more generally. The fungi link together different individual organisms, and extract minerals as well. Mother trees sustain their offspring in the darkness below the canopy, so they are ready to leap toward the light when the time comes. Fire clears out the underbrush and makes minerals easily available, triggering the release of seeds. Forests migrate south en masse as the glaciers advance, but some species can get trapped, unable to climb over the Alps, and are wiped out locally. It’s a seething, adaptive civilization that you can only see through time lapse eyes.
I first came across Jeff Goodell’s writing in Rolling Stone, which published Why the City of Miami is Doomed to Drown in 2013. (Interestingly, the article has since been re-named Miami: How Rising Sea Levels Endanger South Florida.) I’ve referred to that article many times as a case study in the creeping reality of sea level rise, and society’s denial of the issues at hand, so I grabbed a copy of The Water Will Come as soon as I heard it existed. Plus, I get a shiver every time I say the title. It’s almost biblical. Like something out of the Book of Revelations. Messianic and mythic, but… also true.
But Goodell’s book begins and ends with Miami, making forays to Venice, the Netherlands, Manhattan, and Lagos in between. It reads like a kind of disaster tourism — the author seeking out people and places in various stages of realization about sea level rise, and presses them into acknowledging what it means for their city, their livelihood, their future. The responses range from denial, to complete freakout, to stoic commitment to place — going down with the ship.
Sustainable Energy, without the Hot Air by David MacKay, is a book (available in its entirety online) looking at the sources of energy available, and the ways in which we use it today. There are lots of options, but any real discussion has to, at the very least, use numbers that add up.
I’ve been looking, apparently in vain, for a good book (that’s not in German!) detailing Passive House building and modeling techniques. The best I’ve been able to do so far is Toward a Zero Energy Home, and it must have been pretty good, since I read it cover-to-cover in less than 24 hours. It’s not particularly dense or detailed, but it was a nice quick overview of low energy building systems, with lots of pretty pictures, and a dozen case studies from all over North America, including a couple right here in Boulder.
The goal that the authors have chosen to highlight — “Net Zero” — means that the buildings in question produce as much energy as they consume on an annually averaged basis. This necessarily means that they all have some on-site production, wind, PV, solar-thermal hot water, etc. However, to keep such projects reasonably cost effective, it’s necessary to focus first on energy efficiency measures. Most important among these is a very tight building envelope, much more insulation than code requires, and appropriate glazing for passive solar gain. Then the internal power loads need to be minimized, by using energy efficient appliances and LED or CFL lighting. Only after doing all that is it financially worthwhile to start adding on-site renewable generation, capable of meeting the overall annual energy demands of the dwelling. Financially worthwhile, that is, if you have already decided that you want to create a Net Zero building.
David Montgomery‘s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations reminded me a lot of When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce, except that instead of looking at how we have allocated our water resources globally, it focuses on the way humanity has husbanded (or not) its soil resources throughout history, through a vast array of case studies in what we got wrong. It also reminded me a little bit of Energy at the Crossroads, insofar as the last chapter or two, instead of being a concrete, level-headed outline of what we need to do if we actually want to solve the problem which has been presented, it devolves a little bit into a lament. You’ve convinced me there’s a problem. Clearly you have some idea of what the solution looks like. Please don’t be afraid to put that idea into words, even if you think the plausible solutions are so far removed from our current way of doing things that someone is going to think you’re crazy. I think a lot of the most credible solutions to our sustainability problems sound “crazy” to “normal” people these days… but that’s just the way it is. We still need to know what the available solutions look like, or at the very least, what characteristics one can sketch out which any available solution has to have.
Smil’s take on the future of fossil fuels seems very similar to that of Steve Koonin (and thus BP), namely that there’s plenty of all of them in the ground for us to damn ourselves to a hothouse hell, if we should so desire. I’m not entirely sure whether this strikes me as an optimistic, or pessimistic statement, but I suspect it’s pessimistic. If we were forced to change our energy systems, I believe (unlike many Peak Oilers) that we would be up to the challenge, dramatically reducing demand without reducing our standard of living, increasing conversion efficiencies, and innovating our way out of the mess partly technologically, and partly socially. If, on the other hand, we have to choose to stop burning fossil fuels, I’m much less confident that we’ll do the right thing.
Where does our energy come from today, and how do we use it? How much does it take to live the Good Life, and what, really, should that energy be used on? Where might it plausibly come from in the future, and what does the Good Life consist of anyway? Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil at least attempts to get at this stuff, looking at humanity’s utilization of energy, in the past, present, and several possible futures. But the book is a such a dense mass of numbers and graphs that I think I’m going to have to do this in several posts.
The first two sections Long-term Trends and Achievementsand Energy Linkages, look at how energy use correlates with other variables of interest, how those correlations have changed through time, and how they vary globally today. If there’s an overarching message here, it’s that nothing about today’s global energy system is straightforward. You can’t make many useful comparisons by looking at only one dimension, such as the total primary energy supply (TPES) utilized or the energy intensity (EI) of a nation’s economy, or by simply looking at mean values without considering the distribution they come from. These variables are not normally distributed. Another clear message is that the 20th century was an anomaly. The explosive global growth in fossil fuel utilization that we have seen over the last hundred years will not be sustained, for a variety of reasons, any one of which would be convincing, but which in combination are downright scary. Either the way our civilization uses energy will be utterly transformed, or the sources of that energy will change dramatically. Or both.