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Page added on August 11, 2015

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The Earth’s Battery Is Running Low

The Earth’s Battery Is Running Low thumbnail
In the quiet of summer, a couple of U.S. scientists argued in the pages of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that modern civilization has drained the Earth — an ancient battery of stored chemical energy — to a dangerous low.

Although the battery metaphor made headlines in leading newspapers in China, India and Russia, the paper didn’t garner “much immediate attention in North America,” admits lead author John Schramski, a mechanical engineer and an ecologist.

And that’s a shame, because the paper gives ordinary people an elegant metaphor to understand the globe’s stagnating economic and political systems and their close relatives: collapsing ecosystems. It also offers a blunt course of action: “drastic” energy conservation.
It, too, comes with a provocative title: “Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the Earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind.”
The battery metaphor speaks volumes and then some.
In the paper, Schramski and his colleagues at the University of Georgia and the University of New Mexico compared the energy state of the Earth to “the energy state of a house powered by a once-charged battery supplying all energy for lights, heating, cooling, cooking, power appliances and electronic communication.”
It took hundreds of millions of years for photosynthetic plants to trickle charge that battery. Those plants converted low quality sunlight into high-quality chemical energy stored either in living biomass (forests and plankton) or more lastingly in the dead plants and animals that became oil, gas and coal.
But in just a few centuries humans and “the modern industrial-technological informational society” have spent that stored chemical energy and depleted the Earth-space battery.
Society partly drains the battery by converting forests and grasslands into agricultural fields. It diminishes the battery further by burning fossil fuels to plow fields and build cities. Human engineering of one kind or another has left a mark on 83 per cent of the planet.
In essence, humans depleted the battery to grow exponentially and spend more energy.
“As the battery discharges,” the scientists write, the cooling, heating and electronic services provided to the house “become unavailable and the house soon becomes uninhabitable.”
The Earth is like a dying cell phone at an airport, says Schramski, but with no rechargeable plug in sight.
The problem, say the scientists, is that the battery is not being replenished as quick as it is being drained.
Schramski adds a good point: “Eventually, without sufficient living biomass to run the biosphere, it simply doesn’t matter how much oil, solar, nuclear, etc. energy you have, as there is no biosphere left for humans to use it. Biomass is not an interchangeable energy. There is no replacement and we are depleting it rapidly.”
Once in equilibrium
Some 12,000 years ago, hunter-gathers lived in equilibrium: they rarely took more from the battery than its trickle charge rate.
But due to technology, city-making and population growth, human activities are rapidly draining the battery through forest removal and fossil fuel use.
“As we burn organic chemical energy, we generate work to grow our population and economy. In the process the high-quality chemical energy is transformed into heat and lost from the planet by radiation into outer space,” explains Schramski and his colleagues.
Or, in scientific jargon, “The flow of energy from cathode to anode is moving the planet rapidly and irrevocably closer to the sterile chemical equilibrium of space.”
It’s the laws of thermodynamics in action, explains Schramski, a mechanical engineer by training.
Oil companies, dams and solar networks can’t create energy: they can only tap in to the flow and transform it into a useful form. And in the process of transforming the fossil fuels, heat is lost into the atmosphere and eventually space.
All of this energy consumption from stored biomass has left an ugly trail of carbon dioxide and methane emissions that are now creating climate chaos and acidifying oceans.
According to Schramski, the stored living biomass portion of the battery represents the basis for sustaining all life on Earth and is what distinguishes us from the other planets in our solar system.
At the time of the Roman Empire, the Earth held 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon in living biomass, which equaled about 35 zettajoules of chemical energy.
Meanwhile chain welding, soil eroding and bulldozing humans have whittled the Earth’s net primary production down to 550 billion tonnes of carbon in biomass and thereby depleted the battery to 19.2 zettajoules. That’s a significant drop.
Annual energy spending by humans now averages 0.5 zettajoules and keeps on growing like a succession of rocket blasts to Mars.
“I’m not an ardent environmentalist; my training and my scientific work are rooted in thermodynamics,” Schramski says. “These laws are absolute and incontrovertible; we have a limited amount of biomass energy available on the planet, and once it’s exhausted, there is absolutely nothing to replace it.”
So 10,000 years of unremitting population growth, frivolous energy spending and economic growth have now met the reality: “Unless biomass stores stabilize, human civilization is unsustainable.”
The paper goes on: “The Earth is in serious energetic imbalance due to human energy use. This imbalance defines our most dominant conflict with nature. It really is a conflict in the sense that the current energy imbalance, a crisis unprecedented in Earth history, is a direct consequence of technological innovation.”
But market economists (and their related politicians) don’t understand the Earth battery metaphor anymore than they do the laws of thermodynamics, says Schramski and his collaborators.
“Ironically, powerful political and market forces, rather than acting to conserve the remaining charge in the battery, actually push in the opposite direction because the pervasive efforts to increase economic growth will require increased energy consumption.”
“We all have car batteries,” says Schramski, who calls himself an accidental environmentalist. “And we have all left the lights on and found the battery dead.” And that’s what energy consuming economic growth models are doing to the planet.
Giving up mastery
Schramski and his colleagues haven’t really said anything new in the science world. Popular biochemistry textbooks spell out the crisis loudly.
Brilliant Russian physicists have warned for years about the dangers of depleting biomass on the planet. Howard and Eugene Odum, two pioneering U.S. ecologists, offered similar cogent insights in the 1970s. And climate scientists are now warning about the battery’s deadly emissions on a daily basis.
But what makes Schramski’s paper noteworthy in an election year is the power of the battery metaphor, as well as the paper’s irrefutable calculations on the importance of trees, grasses and kelp beds.
In this regard, the draining of the Earth battery gives ordinary people a more accurate picture of where they stand in the scheme of things than any political party nostrums about growth and global trade.
Surprisingly, the metaphor also defines the nature of the spiritual crisis now confronting every living being.
In his Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’, Pope Francis eloquently described the crisis with the kind of language Saint Francis once used.
“If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
The Pope not only understands the state of the Earth as scientists now describe it, but he understands the power of telling metaphors.
And yes, the Earth’s dying battery should be an election issue — and god forbid, a media story.

The Tyee

28 Comments on "The Earth’s Battery Is Running Low"

  1. Nony on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 6:50 am 

    A lot of the hydrocarbon energy created by fossils has been converted to CO2 either by overcooking deep in the earth or by movement over time to the surface and eventual oxidation. For that matter, vast amounts of oil/gas in place is never recovered because of the difficulty in getting it out. For one thing, it is only recently that we are going after it in the source rocks (with the minor exception of Antrim shale in Michigan). And even there we leave way more in the ground than what we recover. In addition, vast quantities of coal remain. And after that of kerogen.

    Also, the “battery” thing is just an analogy as combustion (what hydrocarbons are used for) is not the same as an electrochemical cell. And there are vast sources of energy different from the fossil fuels (nuclear, geothermal, tidal, solar, etc.) The total system energy of these sources dwarf chemical stored energy in fossil fuels. It’s just that fossil fuel energy is convenient and concentrated and well suited for a transport fuel.

    In terms of economic effects of fossil fuels, that’s a complex topic, but I doubt these guys have even an awareness of previous literature within this field. E.g. elasticity of demand/supply or historical perspective on evolution in petroleum extraction methods. I looked at Schramski’s publication list. He’s basically a BSer about thermo and control system analogies. Post modern almost.

  2. Makati1 on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 8:36 am 

    Actually, hydrocarbons ARE the energy that the ecology runs on so it is a battery of sorts. The one that keeps you and me alive. And it is diminishing fast.

  3. Lawfish1964 on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 8:54 am 

    Plants use sunlight as the energy source to convert carbon and hydrogen present in the air and ground into carbohydrates (molecules consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen). When these are consumed by animals, the carbon and hydrogen are combined with breathed oxygen to create CO2 and water for muscle energy. When the plants die and the carbohydrates are not consumed, they can accumulate for millions of years. Under pressure, the carbohydrates are converted to hydrocarbons (molecules containing only hydrogen and carbon).

    Once the available hydrocarbons created by millions of years of stored sunlight are consumed, it’s back to the plant/animal cycle. We exhale CO2, which the plants sequester and release oxygen, which we breathe to oxidize carbohydrates and so on and so on.

  4. Davy on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 9:01 am 

    Humans should never have advanced from a nomadic and semi-nomadic agricultural peoples from the point of view of a species within a niche in a greater ecosystem in balance. We disturbed all the various cycles in the ecosystem post last Ice age. We destroyed a once amazingly diverse and productive ecosystem that is now devoid of much of that diversity. We rejected the energy this ecosystem provided naturally for our human generated energy plus stored energy from billions of years. That wonderful earth ecosystem has now been replaced by humans, their plants, and animals. Oceans have been seriously depleted and in decline or local failure. Climate has been catastrophically disrupted.

    You could say we are just a new natural ecosystem running our course not unlike so many others over the millions of years life has evolved. I would say we are just an extinction species bringing on the end to the post ice age ecosystem that modern man evolved in.

    The chemical energy issues of this article is spot on we have depleted the best resources of all kinds. I can’t think of any economic resources we have not depleted or degraded. Our population is far into overshoot from these chemical resource uses. I would say we are clearly in bottleneck territory.

    We will likely be forced into a rebalance of consumption and population within a generation. Personally I say within 10 years excess deaths will exceed births by a wide margin. Consumption will drop to early 20th century levels within just a few years likely because of socio-economic issues of a collapsing global system and depletion of our foundational commodity oil. Global population must drop to under 1Bil without modern globalism. Modern globalism is a spent force and decaying. It will likely degrade quickly and violently.

    We are also in a spiritual crisis of moral drift, economic descent, and ecosystem destruction. You can’t have positive general spirituality in an entropic decay blowout. Much of what man generates today is noise not spiritual music.

    If you read comparative world theology and philosophy it appears we are in that end point in time cyclical or linear depending on your persuasion. Great change is imminent per the old writings. Some call it the Iron Age or the age signified by the skull and bones. It is an age of death.

    Spiritually death and life are part of the same natural cycle of nature and of man. In that sense we cannot place a qualitative description of this phase of man. What we can do is stop the false religion of human exceptionalism and human progress through growth and development. We cannot honestly say our population and system is what it is said to be by the dominant cornucopian establishment. This is a cultural lie plain and simple.

    We are humans are clever but deceived into thinking of a kind of “importality” and immortality with divine destiny. The deep and ephemeral truths found in world religions have been hijacked by our religion of market capitalism and techno-scientific progress.

    What we need currently is acceptance and honesty. We need to accept we are here in time with overconsumption and overpopulation from a self-organizing human system of billions of individual decisions over centuries. The current global system is irreversible and cannot be altered without a bifurcation to a new system. This bifurcation would almost certainly be to a much lower economic and population base.

    Globalism maximized consumption and population but at the expense of stability and carrying capacity. We can honestly face the profound issue that there is nothing left but an ugly global descent. We can try to mitigate and adapt to this fall. Since actions will not occur until crisis at the macro level we can at least talk about it. We could maybe stockpile resources and skills as a societal preparations. A huge move back to the land in a hybrid agriculture of new and old is our only hope.

    We can start the process at the level of the individual, family, and small community. We have very little time and we are still in the momentum of the old system of growth and human progress. The inertia of limits and declining marginal utility in our global system is quickly draining that momentum.

    What is coming will be epic and all inclusive. We need a religion of change. Not a religion so much as a social narrative with religious structures. There must be meaning to this descent so humans can adapt and mitigate. We are at the point where proper decisions have never been more important if we want to avoid the worst of what is ahead. I am not optimistic but it is still possible to soften the blow of a global bottleneck of unimaginable proportions.

  5. penury on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 11:17 am 

    Anyone who can understand the daily drip of information, should be able to understand, 9.4 billion people is overshoot. Humans are placing too much demand on the ‘battery’ and there are no replacements. Things are better at this moment for a larger number of people than ever before however, unlike Davy I am not optimistic. After all we are still the same as ever with our behavior, and our way of life is not negotiable.

  6. Davy on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 12:51 pm 

    Pen, I am not optimistic for the global system but more so for various regions and locals. There will surely be winners and losers. To early to tell who but we know the conditions that are not optimum. Those people will need more luck than others better placed. That is why prep is so important at macro and individual level. One should always seek an edge.

  7. BobInget on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 12:59 pm 

    My generation apologizes. Well, at least I do.

    In WW/2, my generation, we made sacrifices.
    ‘For the War Effort’ we bought savings bonds.
    We rationed gasoline, butter, meat.
    We had price controls because of inflation fears.

    Ten years later we went to war on Korea.
    We were so rich there was no need to even call
    the Korean ‘Police Action’ a war. Sell bonds, ration anything.

    Ten years later we sent advisors into Vietnam.
    Hard nosed Capitalists, from Korea till today
    we robbed earth’s bounty to further our
    political agenda.

    What a shock! Who knew there are limits?

  8. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 12:59 pm 

    What’s Replacing Coal In Europe? Imported Wood
    In trying to meet renewable goals, Europe is relying on wood from forests in the Southern United States

  9. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 1:11 pm 

    Nony , like you told rockman yesterday – shut up and read. Here is the whole paper on the “battery” thing, old man.

    Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid
    discharge of the earth-space battery foretells
    the future of humankind

    And here is a simple explainer article.

    Humans face extinction if plant destruction continues: ‘Laws of thermodynamics have no mercy’

  10. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 1:13 pm 

    The evidence mounts.

    Research shows catastrophic invertebrate extinction in Hawai’i and globally

  11. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 1:19 pm 

    And mounts………….

    Explainer article

    Humans could be among the victims of sixth ‘mass extinction’, scientists warn

    The world is embarking on its sixth mass extinction with animals disappearing about 100 times faster than they used to, scientists warn, and humans could be among the first victims of the next extinction event.

    “If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on,” lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico said”

    The study

    Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction

    Maybe the price system can fix it up for us.

  12. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 2:09 pm 

    Looks like the battery is starting to run out of drinkable electrolytes for apes.

    Brazil’s water crisis is so bad that the army is staging simulations of a mass uprising at the local water utility

  13. keith on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 2:18 pm 

    We overshot 50 years ago. It’s already baked into the cake.

  14. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 3:28 pm 

    China’s looming water crisis

    “A study by the China’s Ministry of Water Resources found that approximately 55% of China’s 50,000 rivers that existed in the 1990s have … disappeared.

    According to Jiang Liping, senior irrigation specialist at the World Bank in Beijing, China is over-exploiting its groundwater by 22 billion cubic meters a year – yet per capita water consumption is less than one third of the global average.”

  15. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 3:30 pm 

    One fifth of China’s farmland polluted
    New report confirms scale of China’s soil pollution problem with 20% of farmland contaminated

  16. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 3:34 pm 

    Ocean acidification will affect balance of plankton species
    Changes among the small creatures at the bottom of the food chain could ultimately have significant effects on the big species at the top.

  17. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 3:42 pm 

    Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues
    Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years, a senior UN official said

  18. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 4:12 pm 

    A Huge Algae Bloom Off the Pacific Coast Is Poisoning Shellfish and Sea Lions

    “oaquim Goes, research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, connected the appearance of the blooms to sudden and erratic rain showers along the West Coast in April and May that washed nutrient-rich fertilizer the ocean.

    “I think that might have been the initial trigger for this bloom,” he said.

    The fertilizer runoff provided the necessary nutrients for algae to grow, while the warm waters of the Pacific created a conducive environment, said Goes.”

  19. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 4:13 pm 

    e360 Video
    With Climate Change, a Terrifying
    New Normal for Western Firefighters

    “In the last two decades, officials in Colorado have watched as massive, months-long wildfires have become a regular occurrence in their state. A Yale Environment 360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters who describe what it’s like to continuously confront deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.

    To many people, climate change is a distant, abstract concept. But to the men and women who battle wildfires in Colorado and throughout the American West, evidence of a warming world is something they face on a daily basis. In recent years, these fire crews have fought blazes that are larger, more frequent, faster-moving, longer-lasting, and increasingly unpredictable — the result of rising temperatures, diminishing snowpack, and more frequent droughts.”

  20. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 4:17 pm 

    Another soon to be dead industry.

    Extreme weather puts insurance cost on track for record high

  21. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 4:20 pm 

    World’s deepest lake shrouded in smoke, swimmers covered in ash

    ‘Scary’ scenes as fumes from burning forests cover Lake Baikal, with people – and bears – fleeing ‘Apocalypse’.

  22. Apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 4:22 pm 

    And thus ends my postings of your daily Doom for now – although it would be easy to keep going. Don’t worry, there will be another batch to come.

    Drought causes $100 million in crop losses in El Salvador

  23. apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 9:32 pm 

    Hothouse Mass Casualties Strike Egypt, Heatwave Continues to Hospitalize Thousands in Japan

  24. Makati1 on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 9:39 pm 

    Apneaman, you are correct. There will be NO safe corners left in the world this time. When oxygen levels begin to decline, and they will, it’s game over for us breathers. We are killing the oceans and the forests, which make our oxygen, at a rapid rate.

    Fish off Australia’s coast dive deep to avoid heat
    Creatures of the deep cry silently for help: Rocky reef habitat in grave danger
    Ocean changes are affecting salmon biodiversity and survival
    California Wildfires: 12,000 Evacuated as Rocky Fire Rages, Grows
    Warming oceans, low river levels raise B.C. fish mortality fears
    How Ocean Acidification Could Endanger Hundreds of Marine Species
    Wildfires continue to rage in western U.S.
    On four continents, historic droughts wreak havoc
    World wildfires
    Scientists detect mysterious warming in US coastal waters
    Giant Toxic Algae Bloom Poses Threat to Humans and Wildlife on US West Coast

    All at:

    We are committing suicide as a species and there are no safe places to run to, that will evade it. Only variations of the Final Event. I choose to meet it here in the beautiful Philippines where it may take longer, or not. My home country, the US has become chaos country and will soon be hell on earth.

    That is how I see it from my observations and experience.

  25. apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 9:40 pm 

    Looks like there may be a future for all that unwanted condensate after all.

    LA Rolls Out Water-Saving ‘Shade Balls’

    “On Monday afternoon, the 20,000 black plastic balls tumbled down the slopes of Los Angeles Reservoir, joining 95,980,000 of their brethren already covering the surface of the water.”

  26. apneaman on Tue, 11th Aug 2015 11:08 pm 

    Ex Machina: No Techno-Fix For Irreversible Ocean Collapse From Carbon Pollution

    “The paper looked at the impact on the ocean ecosystem of acidification combined with “increasing temperatures and decreasing concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the sea.” As the news release notes, “Earlier in Earth’s history, such changes have led to mass extinctions.”

    Indeed, a 2010 study showed that humans are acidifying the oceans 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. And a 2015 study in Science concluded that the Permo-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago — considered the “the greatest extinction of all time” — happened during the time when massive amounts carbon dioxide were injected into the atmosphere, first slowly and then quickly (driven by volcanic eruptions). The researchers found that “during the second extinction pulse, however, a rapid and large injection of carbon caused an abrupt acidification event that drove the preferential loss of heavily calcified marine biota.” How bad was this extinction? Besides killing over 90 percent of marine life, it wiped out some 70 percent of land-based animal and plant life.”

  27. apneaman on Wed, 12th Aug 2015 5:56 pm 

    The Methane Monster

    “At no time in the past did humans exist under conditions that we are facing now, no matter how far back you go in history.

    Global mean methane levels as high as 1840 parts per billion were recorded on August 4, 2015. This is the highest mean level since records began and this new record is likely to be superseded by even higher levels soon.

    The carbon dioxide that is released now will only reach its peak impact a decade from now. Methane’s high immediate impact makes it more important than carbon dioxide emissions in driving the rate of global warming over the coming decade.”

  28. apneaman on Thu, 13th Aug 2015 2:47 am 

    Three Years of Rain Falls in 12 Hours as Deadly Storm Causes Flooding, Mudslides in Chile

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