Filed under: climate change, Oceania, sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: Boserup, Innovation, Malthus
This is an idea I picked up from Patrick Kirch. While it is used to explain population growth by Polynesian archaeologists, I’m starting to wonder if it can be repurposed to a wider context. The basic idea starts with the notion that, just perhaps, Malthus was wrong.
Filed under: Altithermal, Hot Earth Dreams, organic gardening, sustainability | Tags: California High Altithermal, climate change, gardening
“It is only too obvious that forcible extraction of agricultural products from the grower by those who produce none of their own foments conflict. Free, self-reliant families with modest needs and no natural incentive to increase food production to feed outsiders stand in the way of those seeking power. It is thus not surprising that Russia’s history from the advent of princes and Christianity to the present day has been that of passive and active resistance to the oppressors, endless uprisings, rebellions, peasant wars and brutal executions, and repressions of those refusing to recognize the “divine authority” of rulers (be it “princes” or “commissars”) or the inviolability of the official ideology (be it “Christian” or “communist”).
Russia’s story is by no means unique, but rather falls into the global pattern, since measures required for gaining control over populations that were previously independent and self-sufficient are similar throughout history and throughout the world.” (Leonid Sharashkin, The Socioeconomic and Cultural Significance of Food Gardening in the Vladimir Region of Russia. PDF Link)
It’s fun what you can say in PhD theses, isn’t it? That’s where the above came from. I certainly explored the intertwined themes of appropriation, violence, resistance, and agriculture in Hot Earth Dreams, as many of you undoubtedly remember. What we don’t often think about is how often resistance literally crops up, well, everywhere, even in authoritarian empires like China and Russia/USSR. Or here, for that matter. It’s about gardens, about how people feed themselves and what they do with surpluses. Continue reading
Filed under: colonizing space, deep time, futurism, Hot Earth Dreams, livable future, Real Science Content, science fiction, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: Interstellar Travel, science fiction, Speculation, sustainability
I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media. The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth Dreams. The whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.
Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute. DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory). Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache. DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.
One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA. It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school. This is a new technology. Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.
Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever. DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache. It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.
It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years. Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.
The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it. After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form? Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society. What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?
Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization. Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.
Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…
Filed under: deep time, futurism, livable future, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: Deep Future, locusts and grasshoppers, outbreaks
This is an idea I played with near the end of Hot Earth Dreams, and since it’s the end of the year, I figured I’d post it here for you to contemplate in whatever quiet times you have around the holidays. Full disclosure, I posted an earlier version of this thought over on Antipope (post #1565 in an epic thread!).
This has to do with species that are capable of outbreaks, such as the grasshoppers that can, under the right circumstances, become locusts. In overly general terms, a species in an outbreak goes through what ecologists call “enemy release”–a population’s numbers grow faster than its enemies (predators, parasites, and pathogens) can kill them off. Species that undergo outbreaks can be things like grasshoppers and locusts. The category certainly includes invasive species that have outrun their enemies (think gypsy moths, rats, tamarisk), but even native species can undergo outbreaks, and there’s a whole history of species (like lemmings) that go through booms and busts, because they reproduce faster than their predators, and when predator numbers increase, their populations crash.
What I’d argue is that it’s worth thinking of humans as a species that is capable of outbreaks when the environment allows it. With humans, we call these outbreaks civilization, and the only thing that distinguishes us from gypsy moths is that when we do an outbreak, it’s not just us. Our symbionts, excuse me, our domesticated species, undergo an outbreak with us as we expand their habitat. These days, we use things like medicine, veterinary science, plant pathology, public health, and varmint culling programs to inhibit the actions of the species that would normally control our population numbers and the populations of our symbionts. When we do a good job (as now), our numbers boom and we have civilization.
There are three more points: First, about civilization. What we’re in now–global civilization–is the biggest outbreak we’ve so far been through. There have been a number of former outbreaks, everything from the Roman Empire and various Chinese dynasties down to the conglomerations of Bronze Age city-states that we retroactively call empires, even though they were tiny in comparison to what we have today. Civilization generally is local, lasts a few hundred years at most, and may or may not be immediately succeeded by another civilization. That’s our normal form of outbreak, at least so far.
Second, I’m following the idea, put forward by environmental historians like Brian Fagan and Mark Elvin, that a favorable environment for civilization includes, among other things, a constant climate. In that climate, people find a suite of crops and/or domestic animals that flourish, they produce huge surpluses, their populations boom, and oftentimes strongmen take over, or in any case, a rather complex, hierarchical social structure “evolves” to manage the problem of so many people living on top of each other. When the climate changes, the civilization shrinks to stay within its favorable climate (as with Rome or China and the barbarians on their borders) or collapses (as with the Classic Maya under extreme drought).
That leads me to the third point: civilization is largely or entirely a cultural evolution, not a biological one. Civilized people don’t seem to be genetically different from uncivilized people. Part of the reason for this is that most civilizations throughout deep history only lasted a few hundred years before their survivors of the collapse headed for the hills again, so there hasn’t been much biological selective pressure to humans to become truly civilized. Culture, on the other hand, mutates rapidly, so humans have so far invented civilized cultures when the necessity arises, rather than depending on our genes to somehow know how to live this way.
This leads me deeper into the land of speculation. Thanks to our hugely malleable cultural inheritance, humans can be grasshoppers, living in small bands of foragers, gardeners, or herders off in the “wilderness,” and actually that’s bogus, because such people tend not to separate human lands from wildlands. Conversely, we can be civilized locusts, living as peasants, shepherds, artists, cops, politicians, businessmen, or soldiers, living on “our land” (the land that’s farmed, paved, and otherwise managed) and that’s separate from the howling wilderness out there.
Still, our hardwired belief systems, such as they are, have been more thoroughly shaped by our million-plus years of grasshopper lifestyle as foragers (synonymous with hunter-gatherers, simpler to type), versus the less than ten thousand years some of us been doing civilization. I suspect that’s the reason why spiritual types are typically off in the wilderness when they have their great revelations, when they become prophets or messiahs and try to bring their message of how to live properly back to what feels like a deeply wrong civilization. They’re rediscovering their grasshopper side and trying to spread it around.
Perhaps we can call this “Grasshopper” morality? It is the essence of the back-to-the-land movement, anarcho-primitivism, hermits going off to live in the mountains, and all the rest. When we live in small groups, “in balance with nature” (which means that all those pests, pathogens, and predators keep our numbers under control), we live under different moral and social systems than we do in civilized towns and cities. We have to share with friends and family. We can’t use money, and the financial world is less than useless. We don’t need cops, but we have to be armed and fight for our rights and our families. Nature is bigger than we are and has to be respected and lived with, not ignored. And so on.
Relatively little of this non-outbreak morality really works in a civilized setting. But we get our heads screwed up, because prophets are always going out alone into the wilderness, finding our wild human morality within themselves, and bringing it back as the next new religion to save civilization. We get conflicted, because what these messengers say feels right on a deep level. It feels like it should work for us, because genetically we’re as much grasshoppers as locusts, whatever our lifestyle. But what works when the divine is talking in the wilderness isn’t quite so useful on busy streets.
Worse, when we uncritically try to apply grasshopper morality in a civilized locust setting, we can get into atrocities, because the would-be grasshoppers in power see civilization as a great evil that has to be cleansed and redeemed, if not ended. Does this justify all the Machiavellian evils of civilization? Of course not. But I would suggest that there’s a grasshopper frame of reference and a locust frame of reference. The morality of the garden of Eden probably won’t keep a city working, any more than psychopathic morality will. We’re not hardwired to do civilization.
Now we’re facing a time when our biggest outbreak yet–global civilization–is looking increasingly wobbly and unsustainable. Just intellectually, ignoring grasshopper/locust morality for a second, I’d argue are three possible outcomes for the next century or so:
1. Our numbers crash and humans go extinct. There’s no good evidence of this ever happening to an outbreak species in the fossil record, but simplistic ecological models routinely point this out as a possibility. Personally, I don’t think this will happen, but we can’t discount it.
2. Our current outbreak ends in the collapse of global civilization, and our species goes back to living as mostly or entirely as grasshoppers, wild humans in small groups, again. In the deep future, when and where the environment is stable and suitable, there will be future outbreaks of civilization. This is the scenario in Hot Earth Dreams. I must add that I don’t mean that our few descendants will all be hunters and gatherers, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be villages of farmers and groups of herders after the collapse. It’s more a matter that people will live in small groups (<200 people) with little or no hierarchy and little specialization of roles, whatever their ecological lifestyle happens to be.
3. We somehow make our outbreak sustainable, and having lots of civilized humans around becomes the new normal for Earth. While this may sound weird, other species have actually pulled it off, starting with cyanobacteria, and going on to things like ants, termites, and sauropods (those giant, long-necked dinosaurs). In each case, the outbreak basically rebuilt some part of the Earth’s biosphere, either temporarily (with the sauropods, who pulled it off for hundreds of millions of years) or permanently (as with the cyanobacteria, who rebuilt the atmosphere as a side effect).
Number 3 is what we mean by “sustainability.” When we talk about sustainability, we’re trying to make civilization the new normal, rather than have it be the crazy, unsustainable locust version of our normal grasshopper humanity.
Sustainability might work. Personally, I don’t think it will work in the short term, which is why Hot Earth Dreams is about a future in which humans normally live as grasshoppers in a continually changing world, becoming civilized locusts in the times and places where the climate stabilizes for hundreds to thousands of years. This vision much more complex than the simple boom/bust cycles of lemmings, but I think it’s our most likely future.
Still, a sustainable, global civilization might be possible. Eventually. It took over a billion years for cyanobacteria to make the world safe for aerobic multicellular species, and it might take ten million years or more before Earth’s species have coevolved with us long enough that civilization becomes normal, even when the climate changes.
I think it’s rather less likely that what we have now will last ten million years, but it’s possible. It’s a goal worth working towards, but we need to think about just how enormous making civilization normal truly is. This will be the first time we’ve tried it as a species.
The other thing to think about is how to deal with the evils of civilization and what to do about them. From a grasshopper’s view, what locusts do is totally, destructively crazy and evil, yet they get away with it for awhile. Locust morality isn’t grasshopper morality, because what works with a locust swarm is horribly destructive for a small group of grasshoppers and (apparently) vice versa.
If you want sustainable, large-scale civilization, then you’ve got to deal with our cultural inheritance as civilized beings, even when it conflicts with our biological wiring. In other words, you’ve got to accept that there’s something that feels totally absurd and possibly evil about us when we’re in outbreak mode. Living as civilized people, we have to have laws, justice, rules, bosses, and and all that, even when it feels wrong. The critical point is that, if we want to continue civilization, we have to be very thoughtful about which parts of our deep-seated grasshopper morality we use, because they won’t necessarily work in a civilized context. Even though things feel weird, pointless, or wrong sometimes, you’ve got to help make it work along with the rest of us, into the indefinite future, until human nature has finally changed enough for it to feel right.
And let’s not talk about #1. I think all species deserve to exist, including our own. We’re not irredeemably evil or inherently good. We’re just another weird species that’s been suckered by evolution into existing, and even though we’re imperfect, we deserve our shot. Genocide is evil.
So if you want civilization to become sustainable, it’s probably less important to trust the Force and let it guide your instincts, and rather more important to go to those boring committee meetings and do the tough work of keeping things running on your watch. After all, we’re still quite new at this whole civilization thing, and we’ve got to figure it out collectively. Feelings aren’t wrong, but they’re not necessarily right either. To make civilization work, we need both our heads and our hearts.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Filed under: Hot Earth Dreams, livable future, sustainability | Tags: climate change, science
Okay, I’m a pessimist. Is it a good thing to cheer on the Paris COP21 Climate talks, or not?
On the one hand, if they fail, I’ve got a great marketing tool for Hot Earth Dreams: it will be a more likely future. Except that the scenario will probably fail because the Earth will get hotter faster than I predicted, so I might have to do a bit of a rewrite and get depressed that I wasn’t pessimistic enough the first time.
On the other hand, if COP21 comes up with a treaty, no one will want to read about a hot Earth, except that I’m pretty much describing what the COP21 treaty will accomplish: partial control of carbon emissions, which extends the terafart out to 100 years when it could run in as little as 20-50 years. Guess that means I’ll try selling the book again in 10 years, when people start seeing the shortcomings of getting GHG emissions cut but not eliminated.
Still, why not be hopeful? Maybe something will come out of this one. My pessimism is wrong more often than not. That’s why I’m pessimistic about it too.
If you’re interested in exploring a future that’s not depleted of fossil fuels, where we get GHG emissions truly under control, you might want to check out The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. It’s a think-tank, excuse me, a “global collaboration of energy research teams charting practical pathways to deeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions in their own countries.” With decent PR, obviously, despite “decarbonization.” From what I’ve read of their reports so far, they aren’t bad.
Their overall message so far is something that should be familiar to those who have read Hot Earth Dreams: it’s technologically feasible to get greenhouse gas emissions under control, keep economic growth going, and so forth. The problem is one of politics and logistics, since it requires a large-scale transformation of civilization over the next few decades to pull it off.
Am I the only one who thought “oh, so it will never work” on reading that last sentence? Why won’t it work? Builders are going to get rich rebuilding civilization to deal with this crisis. Why are so many people running away from it, rather than towards it? It’s funny that in the 21st Century, “let’s reinvent society so that everyone gets a better life” is something we’ve been taught to cringe from, when in the 20th Century, whole revolutionary movements got started that way. How times have changed.
In any case, let’s be hopeful that something good comes out of Paris. And if you want to write about a 21st Century with climate change, I’d suggest that the Decarbonization crew is a good place to start your worldbuilding research.
Any thoughts on it?
Filed under: futurism, Preludes, sustainability | Tags: cli fi, climate change, Deep Future, sustainability
I guess there’s a theme to be mined here.
Going from the same idea as the previous blog post, Preludes to Space, it’s worth looking at how well our society is getting on with that whole, mysterious sustainability thing.
There are two problems with sustainability, at least in my weird opinion. One is that we know how to do it, if we’re talking about your basic, semi-isolated, neolithic society, with some offshoots to your basic, isolated iron age society, and we’re talking about time periods no longer than a few centuries. The “high tech” outliers are the Greenland Vikings, who made a go of it for around 500 years, and the Japanese under the Shogun, who pulled it off for around 200 years (note that Jared Diamond got weird about this in Collapse). Otherwise, again, we’re talking about the Polynesians and other islanders, and all the “primitive” cultures that imperialist forces have conquered over the last 500 years, all of whom were more or less sustainable. In other words, if we go low tech and low population numbers, we pretty much know what sustainability looks like, because that was the world a few thousand years ago. With ten billion people and high tech, we’re pretty clueless about sustainability looks like, except we have this feeling that we’re better than we were before, so it should be easier to get to sustainable than it’s proving to be.
The other problem is that we’re kind of in outbreak mode right now, sort of like gypsy moth apes. Technically, this is called the Enemy Release Hypothesis in ecology, where species that can evade or overcome their natural enemies (predators, pest, parasites, and pathogens) can dramatically expand their numbers. This is almost always temporary, because eventually the natural enemies find their prey, and prey numbers crash. In human terms, we’ve released ourselves through things like medicine and public health to control our pathogens and parasites, using veterinary science and plant pathology to help our domestic species avoid predators other than us, killing any predator that comes after us and our symbionts (aka our domestic species), and throwing billions of dollars at the industries that promise to keep doing this for the foreseeable future.
This situation is metastable in many ways. Medicine’s chief tools–antibiotics–have a short effective lifespan, we’re amazingly stupid about maintaining public health infrastructure like sewers and water lines, and all of it depends on fossil fuel sources that are running out. We could, very easily, open ourselves to our enemies, and then disease and famine would reduce our population down to sustainable levels of a hundred million or so.
Still, simple-minded sustainability is the notion that we can make our outbreak permanent, keep our population fairly high indefinitely using renewable energy and recycling all our stuff. Crashing back to sustainability is idea of civilization collapse, which I’m going to get to in the next post. In any case, there are precedents for us turning the outbreak of a new clade into the new normal. The cyanobacteria did it, although it took them over a billion years to start running the biosphere’s oxygen atmosphere. Ants, termites, and bees have done it in the insect world. Mycorrhizal plants did it 400 million years ago. There’s no physical reason we can’t keep human populations high and run them sustainably. However, there’s no physical reason to assume that we can pull it off either. We’re in unknown territory, and there are many species on Earth right now that can expand into outbreaks but not sustain their high numbers. Sustainability at high number is very unlikely, but fortunately, it’s not impossible.
What does sustainable technology look like? The most restrictive case is what I talked about in Preludes to Space: we can only colonize space on a sustainable basis, so if we want to colonize other planets, we have to solve the sustainability problem too. Still, there are many technologies which are sustainable here but which won’t work in space. It’s rather more possible that we’ll get to sustainable and find out that we still can’t colonize other planets.
There are huge number of complexities involved with sustainability, but there a couple of general problems. One is that we have to learn how to power our civilization off renewables, and nuclear fusion, if that’s possible (sorry, I’m not interested in entertaining the eternal nuclear-uranium-thorium-we can do it–don’t tell me to shut up discussion here) . Another problem is that we need to recycle basically every element. Since we can argue about power endlessly, I’m going to focus on the recycling issue here.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve got a relative who deals with solid waste issues on a regular basis, and I can tell you that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of schemes to recycle just about everything. Most of them are unworkable, because they demand that the trash coming in is very homogeneous: it has to be all greenwaste from yards, or fluorescent bulbs, or used diapers, or used lumber from construction, or whatever. Throw a broken fluorescent bulb in the greenwaste, and it’s unrecyclable for both. The trash stream most cities deal with is extremely heterogeneous, which is why a lot of it ends up in landfills. Polluters range from careless to stupid to evil, and there are two generally proven methods for dealing with waste: dumping it (which we do with trash and sewage) and hand sorting it (which we do with recyclables, many of which end up in the trash anyway because they’re not cost-effective to remanufacture). To get to sustainable, we need to be able to recycle everything, so (for instance) nutrients go from farms to food to compost and sewage, to fertilizer back on the farm. This would be great, if a large hosts of pathogens and contaminants didn’t ride along on the recycling stream and contaminate our food supply and the supply of every other resource.
Still, it can be done, and it is routinely done in Third World cities, where sewage is used as cheap farm fertilizer and the desperately poor sort through the trash for anything they can sell. Our problem in the developed world is that we see the resulting disease, discrimination, and poverty of such cultural recycling as environmental justice issues that often are inflicted on minorities. We want to find ways for to do it equitably, so that everyone gets to be healthy and not poor, even if they’re dealing with waste. That’s a much harder problem.
Actually, just keeping streams of materials homogeneous is the most difficult problem here. Every time we can figure out how to recycle something cleanly, it becomes a reasonably good industry. The problem is when recycables get contaminated. For example, back 50 years ago, glass bottles for wine, milk, and soda were routinely recycled. One perennial problem is that someone would, say, use a milk bottle to store used motor oil until he could dump it somewhere. Then he’d turn the polluted bottle back in for a refund, sticking the recycler with the chore of decontaminating the bottle before it was refilled with milk, or throwing the bottle out and losing the resource. It’s a ubiquitous problem with recycling. Recycled steel needs to have steel in it and not a lot of silicon from dirt, recycled medical supplies have to be sterile, glass has to be all the same composition, recycled electronics chips have to be pure, and so forth.Again, it’s a difficult problem, not necessarily an impossible one. We can hope that there are some technical solutions out there, as well as cultural ones.
Still, as with a culture that is preadapted to colonize space, a society that is high tech and sustainable will look strange to our eyes. Their social mores will be different, especially around handling waste materials. They’ll be much more sophisticated and thoughtful about recycling, and they’ll probably be disgusted by different things than we are. Indeed, they won’t be consumers in the modern sense, because consuming stuff and throwing it out won’t be the cornerstone of their identities. They might come off as a bunch of enviro-prigs compared to us, but they’ll think we’re pretty disgusting too.
Filed under: economics, futurism, Real Science Content, science fiction, sustainability | Tags: 2030, ammonia, climate change, Deep Future, energy use, global warming
This is another spun-off “strange attractor” from Antipope. It had nothing to do with the thread it was on, but the topic is interesting enough–if you’re into futuristic science fiction–that I wanted to summarize it here.
The basic idea is using ammonia as an alternate, carbon-free fuel. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, and there are a bunch of industrial efforts out there that might well project us into an ammonia age rather than a hydrogen one. Unfortunately, ammonia isn’t a panacea, so switching from fossil fuels to ammonia synthesized using solar or wind energy won’t be problem free. For those looking for dramatic conflict, ammonia has it.
Anyway, the fundamentals. Ammonia is NH3. If like me you’re lazy, you can go to Wikipedia’s article on energy densities, and find out that liquid ammonia has about 11.5 MJ/L of energy, slightly better than compressed natural gas (9 MJ/L) and liquid hydrogen (8.5 MJ/L), and less than propane (25.3 MJ/L) or gasoline (34.2 MJ/L), among many others.
As for making NH3, right now we make it in huge plants using the Haber-Bosch process, which makes ammonia using natural gas. Nitrogen is ubiquitous as N2 in the atmosphere, but N2 is a very stable molecule, and it takes a lot of energy to break it and turn it into NH3. Still, people are looking for better ways to do it. NH3 Canada is developing a miniature ammonia synthesizer that’s about four cubic meters in size and can produce 500 liters of ammonia per day, with each liter of ammonia taking 2 liters of water and 7.5 KWhrs of electricity to produce it. As a comparison, the average US home uses 909 kWhr per month or about 30 kWhr per day, which is about what it would take to make a gallon of ammonia using NH3 Canada’s technology. If it works.
To save you the math, that’s about 30% conversion efficiency, which isn’t bad. Ammonia synthesis could be used to store electricity from, say, wind turbines. The nice thing about NH3 Canada is that they want to use small units and stack them in banks, while the older technology uses huge furnaces to get efficiencies of scale.
What can you do with ammonia? You can actually mix it with gasoline and use it to run your car, if you get the mix right, and other researchers are working on creating engines that can run on pure ammonia. While there’s less energy in ammonia than there is in propane, it can be handled similarly. Pure (anhydrous) ammonia is fairly dangerous stuff, but then again, so is liquid hydrogen, and so are giant batteries if they’re fully charged. Energy density makes things dangerous.
Of course, ammonia has many other uses. We all know of it as a cleaner and fuel, and it used to be used in refrigerators before people switched to the much more efficient and dangerous CFCs [but see comments]. But it’s primary use is as a fertilizer and to make explosives, including gunpowder. Industrial nitrogen fixation underlies Big Ag all over the world, and it also underlies industrial warfare. Without huge amounts of gunpowder, things like machine guns don’t work, because there isn’t enough ammunition to make them fully functional killing machines.
Similarly, without huge amounts of nitrogen, the huge amounts of corn, wheat, and soy that are required to feed all seven billion of us wouldn’t exist. Some calculate that at least a third of us wouldn’t exist without fixed nitrogen in our food. The US has taken full advantage of this, and forcing huge supplies of cheap food on the world has been a major part of our foreign policy since the Eisenhower Administration. It was one way of beating communism, and protecting our high-yielding corn from things like being pirated by the Chinese is a matter of national security today.
I’m not a huge fan of Big Ag, even though I’d probably be dead without it. Still, if we want to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, adapting and expanding our existing fixed nitrogen infrastructure is a lot easier than trying to build the infrastructure needed to handle hydrogen.
That’s the good part. There are some downsides.
One is that when you burn ammonia in an engine, it produces NOx, which is a major source of air pollution. This can be fixed if there’s a catalytic converter on the exhaust pipe. I suppose, if you’re powering agricultural equipment, it might be possible to capture the NOx, convert it to nitrate or urea, and use it as fertilizer on the fields, thereby getting a second use from the fixed nitrogen.
One big problem with an ammonia economy is the same problem with renewables, which is that you’re capturing energy from the modern sun, and that’s all you get to play with. Fossil fuels use fossil sunlight from the last few hundred million years, and that’s a lot more energy. There’s no fossil ammonia, so we’d be stuck working in a lower energy environment. Currently, industrially fixed nitrogen takes about 1% of the global energy supply, but that’s a fixed 1%, and if it’s used for other purposes, people can starve. We’d have to ramp up NH3 production to store captured renewable energy, not depend on what’s already being made.
Still, I can envision a world where giant farms host an overstory of huge wind turbines, all hooked up to ammonia synthesizers. The farmer uses the ammonia to run his equipment, then uses nitrates captured from the exhaust to fertilize his fields. Aside from the scale and all the problems with nitrogen runoff and pollution, this isn’t a bad setup.
There are some interesting follow-ons.
–One is politics. If most of the world switches to synthesizing ammonia from sunlight or wind, the countries that depend on petroleum exports are out of luck. The only parts of the Middle East that would continue to matter to the US (and possibly China and Russia) are Egypt and Israel, due to the Suez Canal. This means that the burgeoning crises in the region would have to be dealt with semi-regionally, if at all. And that’s bad for all those refugees. Russia is likely to be a hold-out in switching off fossil fuels, since they get so much power from oil and natural gas, but switching to ammonia would change international politics as much as did the switch to using oil in the early 20th Century.
–A second issue is fertilizer. It is feasible to synthesize huge amounts of ammonia, but other elements are essential for plant growth, and the world is starting to run short of minable phosphorus. We may well have phosphorus wars in the future, but the simpler solution is to recycle sewage and manure onto fields. This has all sorts of public health and disease vector implications, but it will keep people from starving And there are menu implications–you want to eat raw salad from a field that receives sewage? It’s a common practice in the developing world.
–A third issue is air pollution. I can easily see people using ammonia to power things like home generators in areas where the power grid is failing, but if these machines don’t have decent filters on their exhaust, they will put out a lot of air pollution. The resulting smog will degrade the performance of any local solar panels, but it might be simpler than investing in huge batteries and a smart grid to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine.
And who will control the ammonia? A nitrogen-based economy has less energy than does the current oil-based economy. Energy becomes power when it is scarcer, even more than it is currently. Right now, we’re seeing how Big Oil distorts politics all over the world. Small ammonia generators, like the NH3 Canada machine, change the current game that is dominated by a few huge producers, because they mean that small-scale producers can make small amounts of fuel, at least in the short term. Probably this means that the advantage shifts from those who produce ammonia to those who build ammonia synthesizers and can best ship the ammonia from producers to consumers. Over time, I suspect that a few big ammonia producers will dominate the industry in any one area. They will be, quite literally, power brokers.
Still, switching to ammonia could slow down global warming, because the great advantage of NH3 is there’s no carbon emission from using it. It beats things like bio-diesel and biomass cold. Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing methane emissions from the Arctic, so even if we get civilization’s carbon emissions under control, we may be passing the tipping point as you read this. We’ll see.
If you want to write a SF-thriller set in the next few decades, you could do worse than to power the world with ammonia, and make the Politics of N a centerpiece of the story. After all ammonia isn’t just a fuel, it’s a cleaner, fertilizer, and a refrigerant. Who wouldn’t want to get rich off it? Something to think about.