In biology, parasitism is an intimate relationship between two or more types of organisms in which one, the parasite, benefits to the detriment or even death of the other or others — the hosts. Symbiotic mutualism is an intimate relationship between two or more types of organisms in which all, the symbionts, benefit from the association. Any attempt to create sustainability must focus far more on symbiosis.
Another over-arching myth which must be overcome to avert disaster is that human endeavors somehow do not have extremely broad and long-lasting impacts upon all of the supporting environment in which they take place. The mythology of the separation of human action and the environment began to be overthrown in the US with societal institution of clean air and clean water regulations largely beginning in the 1970s. The international chlorofluorocarbon regulations of the 1990s struck a major blow to the myth’s foundations. Now, the almost universal recognition — except, unfortunately, in the United States — that release of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel exploitation and biologically degrading land use have quite significant climatic effects should do away with this insidious myth entirely.
One more over-arching myth is the notion within mainstream economic theory that nature is but one small component of a larger system of economics—“natural resources.” The reality is quite the other way around: human economic systems are one small part of the grand systems and cycles of the Earth, and are entirely dependent upon the Earth. An example of this fallacy in action is the economist who declared that it wouldn’t matter if climate change entirely destroyed agriculture, because agriculture is only 3% of the world economy. Modern economic systems almost always negatively impact the environment, but that does not have to be the case. I remain convinced that, through symbiotic mindfulness, it is possible to develop economic systems which interact in mutually beneficial ways with their environments.
Perhaps the most basic, if unpleasant, understanding from which all OARS’ efforts emanate has been a recognition that, over the millennia, humans have developed as greater and greater parasites on the earth and her ecosystems. Sustainability requires that we end our exploitative, parasitic ways and learn how to become mutually symbiotic with the rest of life on earth.
This will require much greater attention devoted to the kinds of resources we use and the means by which they are obtained, and perhaps more importantly, to the management of residues of all types. This includes both organic and inorganic materials and consideration needs to include both material and energetic dimensions. In all of this, shopping for the environment will simply not do. Consumers and their suppliers must assume the student seat and learn from the earth and the natural systems which have supported us from the beginning.
One of the major illusions of conventional economics is the “economics of scale.” This narrow-minded myth claims that increasing the scale of an economic activity will almost always increase its efficiency, resulting in increased production at lower costs per unit. What these analyses ignore, or “externalize,” is that increased centralization almost always comes with significantly increased environmental costs that, if fairly monetized, would argue strongly against such centralization.
Another understanding that has driven these efforts with some urgency is that of “Peak Oil” and the world in which my sons will have to live. Although I generally argue against linear analysis, I do find such representation of the Fossil Fuel Age highly informative, especially recognizing that we have passed the peak. There can be no doubt that there must be a great transition out of fossil fuel exploitation. Fortunately, alternatives do exist — solar in many guises, wind, ocean, biomass, also in many guises, and others. The sooner the necessity of change is recognized and symbiotically acted upon, the easier the transition will be. Of the many websites exploring Peak Oil, I would suggest www.richardheinberg.com.
One other foundation for OARS’ efforts can be gleaned from attending to relative energy levels from the annual human metabolic rate to the total solar input to earth It should be noted that the efficiency of the photosynthetic process — transforming solar energy into biomass — is generally about 1 percent. Solar cells have been tested which are over 20 percent efficient at transforming solar energy directly to electricity. One should note that the figures for US and world energy use refer to commercial sources. According to the USDOE Energy Information Administration, the 2006 figures for US energy use would be 9.9 X 10^15 and World energy use would be 4.7 X 10^17. Even with these updated figures, annual photosynthesis is still nearly 100 times greater than world energy use. And solar energy input to earth is nearly 10,000 times greater. (Please click on image for larger view)
A second graph focuses more on worldwide annual photosynthetic energy and rough estimates of human use of this energy. While the portion of net primary production now coopted by humanity includes food and biomass energy, eg. firewood, there is a huge potential to manage so much of the residue in more efficient, harmonious and symbiotic ways which could reduce the need for commercial energy. OARS efforts with integrated biogas digesters, greenhouses and production lagoons, presented in “Agricultural Systems,” offers one way this can be accomplished. (Please click on image for larger view)