Thursday, June 4, 2009

For those planning on living past Mid-Century: "Phosphorus"

Algal bloom in village river. Taken in a small...Algal bloom, driven by phosphorus. Image via Wikipedia

The lights will probably go out at LOVESalem HQ by mid-century, but there's plenty of folks in Salem who would like to be doing all the usual stuff for decades past that, especially things like, you know, eating.

Those people might want to start planning ahead now for the investment opportunity of the century: peak phosphorus.

Peak phosphorus is going to make dealing with peak oil seem like child's play. We can talk about oil as an "addiction" because it truly is something that we can live without, like cigarettes. But there's no doing without phosphorus, period.

Salem is the county seat of Oregon's No. 1 Ag producing county. Wonder if there's anyone in City or County government thinking about how we're going to grow crops without imported phosphorus (when the world price skyrockets and we can't afford to buy it).
Scientific American Magazine - June 3, 2009

Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply

. . . Our planet is also a spaceship: it has an essentially fixed total amount of each element. In the natural cycle, weathering releases phosphorus from rocks into soil. Taken up by plants, it enters the food chain and makes its way through every living being. Phosphorus—usually in the form of the phosphate ion PO43-—is an irreplaceable ingredient of life. It forms the backbone of DNA and of cellular membranes, and it is the crucial component in the molecule adenosine triphosphate, or ATP—the cell’s main form of energy storage. An average human body contains about 650 grams of phosphorus, most of it in our bones. . . .

Harvesting breaks up the cycle because it removes phosphorus from the land. In prescientific agriculture, when human and animal waste served as fertilizers, nutrients went back into the soil at roughly the rate they had been withdrawn. But our modern society separates food production and consumption, which limits our ability to return nutrients to the land. Instead we use them once and then flush them away.

Agriculture also accelerates land erosion—because plowing and tilling disturb and expose the soil—so more phosphorus drains away with runoff. And flood control contributes to disrupting the natural phosphorus cycle. Typically river floods would redistribute phosphorus-rich sediment to lower lands where it is again available for ecosystems. Instead dams trap sediment, or levees confine it to the river until it washes out to sea. . . .

The standard approaches to conservation apply to phosphorus as well: reduce, recycle and reuse. We can reduce fertilizer usage through more efficient agricultural practices such as terracing and no-till farming to diminish erosion [see “No-Till: The Quiet Revolution,” by David R. Huggins and John P. Reganold; Scientific American, July 2008]. The inedible biomass harvested with crops, such as stalks and stems, should be returned to the soil with its phosphorus, as should animal waste (including bones) from meat and dairy production, less than half of which is now used as fertilizer.

We will also have to treat our wastewater to recover phosphorus from solid waste. This task is difficult because residual biosolids are contaminated with many pollutants, especially heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, which leach from old pipes. Making agriculture sustainable over the long term begins with renewing our efforts to phase out toxic metals from our plumbing.

Half the phosphorus we excrete is in our urine, from which it would be relatively easy to recover. And separating solid and liquid human waste—which can be done in treatment plants or at the source, using specialized toilets—would have an added advantage. Urine is also rich in nitrogen, so recycling it could offset some of the nitrogen that is currently extracted from the atmosphere, at great cost in energy.

Fertilizer runoff and wastewater discharge contribute to eutrophication, uncontrolled blooms of cyanobacteria in lakes and oceans, often large enough to be seen from orbit. Cyanobacteria (also known as blue-green algae) feed on nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers. . . . Cyanobacteria living in freshwater can extract nitrogen from the air, so limiting phosphorus runoff is essential, as was confirmed in 2008 by a 37-year-long study in which researchers deliberately added nutrients to a Canadian lake. “There’s not a single case in the world where anyone has shown that you can reduce eutrophication by controlling nitrogen alone,” says lead author David Schindler of the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Cyanobacteria living in seawater seem unable to take in atmospheric nitrogen but may get enough phosphorus from existing sediment, other researchers point out, urging controls on nitrogen as well. 

In the comments at The Oil Drum, Bart Anderson of The Energy Bulletin notes:

Phosphorous is different . . . . It's a less tractable problem than even energy, for which there are multiple sources and many ways to reduce usage.

Once easily mined phosophorous ore is gone, there is NO ALTERNATIVE. Yes, we can recycle to some extent, but there are always losses and there will be little new phosphorus to bring into the system.

Plants need N-P-K, and one of those nutrients is usually the limiting factor for an ecosystem.

Nitrogen can be produced from the atmosphere, but not phosphorus.

So, if the population is at a level to require added nutrients, which is likely even if populations are reduced, we will need phosphorus.

In the 19th century, with a much lower populations, Europe experienced a shortage of nutrients.

I'm thinking that phosphorus is probably the limiting factor for human populations.

Articles on phosphorus:

Bart Anderson
Energy Bulletin

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From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy

The components of the US money supply, express...Image via Wikipedia

Key excerpt:

Let us look briefly at ten specific policy proposals for moving to a steady-state economy, i.e., an economy that maintains a constant metabolic flow of resources from depletion to pollution—a throughput that is within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the ecosystem.

1. Cap-auction-trade systems for basic resources. Caps limit biophysical scale by quotas on depletion or pollution, whichever is more limiting. Auctioning the quotas captures scarcity rents for equitable redistribution. Trade allows efficient allocation to highest uses. This policy has the advantage of transparency. There is a limit to the amount and rate of depletion and pollution that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are quotas, limits to the throughput of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. The quota usually should be applied at the input end because depletion is more spatially concentrated than pollution and hence easier to monitor. Also the higher price of basic resources will induce their more economical use at each upstream stage of production. It may be that the effective limit in use of a resource comes from the pollution it causes rather than from depletion—no matter, we indirectly limit pollution by restricting depletion of the resource that ultimately is converted into wastes. Limiting barrels, tons, and cubic feet of carbon fuels extracted will limit tons of CO2 emitted. This scale limit serves the goal of biophysical sustainability. Ownership of the quotas is initially public—the government auctions them to the individuals and firms. The revenues go to the treasury and are used to replace regressive taxes, such as the payroll tax, and to reduce income tax on the lowest incomes. Once purchased at auction the quotas can be freely bought and sold by third parties, just as can the resources whose rate of depletion they limit. The trading allows efficient allocation; the auction serves just distribution, and the cap serves the goal of sustainable scale. The same logic can be applied to limiting the off-take from fisheries and forests.

2. Ecological tax reform—shift tax base from value added (labor and capital) and on to “that to which value is added”, namely the entropic throughput of resources extracted from nature (depletion), and returned to nature (pollution). This internalizes external costs as well as raises revenue more equitably. It prices the scarce but previously un-priced contribution of nature. Value added is something we want to encourage, so stop taxing it. Depletion and pollution are things we want to discourage, so tax them. Ecological tax reform can be an alternative or a supplement to cap-auction-trade systems.

3. Limit the range of inequality in income distribution—a minimum income and a maximum income. Without aggregate growth poverty reduction requires redistribution. Complete equality is unfair; unlimited inequality is unfair. Seek fair limits to the range of inequality. The civil service, the military, and the university manage with a range of inequality of a factor of 15 or 20. Corporate America has a range of 500 or more. Many industrial nations are below 25. Could we not limit the range to, say, 100, and see how it works? People who have reached the limit could either work for nothing at the margin if they enjoy their work, or devote their extra time to hobbies or public service. The demand left unmet by those at the top will be filled by those who are below the maximum. A sense of community necessary for democracy is hard to maintain across the vast income differences current in the US. Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500 become almost different species. The main justification for such differences has been that they stimulate growth, which will one day make everyone rich. This may have had superficial plausibility in an empty world, but in our full world it is a fairy tale.

4. Free up the length of the working day, week, and year—allow greater option for part-time or personal work. Full-time external employment for all is hard to provide without growth. Other industrial countries have much longer vacations and maternity leaves than the US. For the Classical Economists the length of the working day was a key variable by which the worker (self-employed yeoman or artisan) balanced the marginal disutility of labor with the marginal utility of income and of leisure so as to maximize enjoyment of life. Under industrialism the length of the working day became a parameter rather than a variable (and for Karl Marx was the key determinant of the rate of exploitation). We need to make it more of a variable subject to choice by the worker. And we should stop biasing the labor–leisure choice by advertising to stimulate more consumption and more labor to pay for it. Advertising should no longer be treated as a tax deductible ordinary expense of production.

5. Re-regulate international commerce—move away from free trade, free capital mobility and globalization, adopt compensating tariffs to protect, not inefficient firms, but efficient national policies of cost internalization from standards-lowering competition. We cannot integrate with the global economy and at the same time have higher wages, environmental standards, and social safety nets than the rest of the world. Trade and capital mobility must be balanced and fair, not deregulated or “free”. Tariffs are also a good source of revenue that could substitute for other taxes.

6.Downgrade the IMF-WB-WTO to something like Keynes’ original plan for a multilateral payments clearing union, charging penalty rates on surplus as well as deficit balances—seek balance on current account, and thereby avoid large foreign debts and capital account transfers. For example, under Keynes’ plan the US would pay a penalty charge to the clearing union for its large deficit with the rest of the world, and China would also pay a similar penalty for its surplus. Both sides of the imbalance would be pressured to balance their current accounts by financial penalties, and if need be by exchange rate adjustments relative to the clearing account unit, called the bancor by Keynes. The bancor would serve as world reserve currency, a privilege that should not be enjoyed by any national currency. The IMF preaches free trade based on comparative advantage, and has done so for a long time. More recently the IMF-WB-WTO have started preaching the gospel of globalization, which, in addition to free trade, means free capital mobility internationally. The classical comparative advantage argument, however, explicitly assumes international capital immobility! When confronted with this contradiction the IMF waves its hands, suggests that you might be a xenophobe, and changes the subject. The IMF-WB-WTO contradict themselves in service to the interests of transnational corporations. International capital mobility, coupled with free trade, allows corporations to escape from national regulation in the public interest, playing one nation off against another. Since there is no global government they are in effect uncontrolled. The nearest thing we have to a global government (IMF-WB-WTO) has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good.

7. Move away from fractional reserve banking toward a system of 100% reserve requirements. This would put control of the money supply and seigniorage in hands of the government rather than private banks, which would no longer be able to create money out of nothing and lend it at interest. All quasi-bank financial institutions should be brought under this rule, regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial intermediation only, lending savers’ money for them (charging a loan rate higher than the rate paid to savings account depositors) and providing checking, safekeeping, and other services. With 100% reserves every dollar loaned would be a dollar previously saved, re-establishing the classical balance between abstinence and investment. The government can pay its expenses by issuing more non interest-bearing fiat money to make up for the eliminated bank-created, interest-bearing money. However, it can only do this up to a strict limit imposed by inflation. If the government issues more money than the public wants to hold, the public will trade it for goods, driving the price level up. As soon as the price index begins to rise the government must print less and tax more. Thus a policy of maintaining a constant price index would govern the internal value of the dollar. The external value of the dollar could be left to freely fluctuating exchange rates (or preferably to the rate against the bancor in Keynes’ clearing union).

8. Stop treating the scarce as if it were non-scarce, but also stop treating the non-scarce as if it were scarce. Enclose the remaining commons of rival natural capital (e.g. atmosphere, electromagnetic spectrum, public lands) in public trusts, and price it by a cap-auction–trade system, or by taxes, while freeing from private enclosure and prices the non-rival commonwealth of knowledge and information. Knowledge, unlike throughput, is not divided in the sharing, but multiplied. Once knowledge exists, the opportunity cost of sharing it is zero and its allocative price should be zero. International development aid should more and more take the form of freely and actively shared knowledge, along with small grants, and less and less the form of large interest-bearing loans. Sharing knowledge costs little, does not create un-repayable debts, and it increases the productivity of the truly rival and scarce factors of production. Existing knowledge is the most important input to the production of new knowledge, and keeping it artificially scarce and expensive is perverse. Patent monopolies (aka “intellectual property rights”) should be given for fewer “inventions”, and for fewer years. Costs of production of new knowledge should, more and more, be publicly financed and then the knowledge freely shared.

9. Stabilize population. Work toward a balance in which births plus in- migrants equals deaths plus out-migrants. This is controversial and difficult, but as a start contraception should be made available for voluntary use everywhere. And while each nation can debate whether it should accept many or few immigrants, such a debate is rendered moot if immigration laws are not enforced. Support voluntary family planning, and enforcement of reasonable immigration laws, democratically enacted in spite of the cheap labor lobby.

10. Reform national accounts—separate GDP into a cost account and a benefits account. Compare them at the margin, stop throughput growth when marginal costs equal marginal benefits. In addition to this objective approach, recognize the importance of the subjective studies that show that, beyond a threshold, further GDP growth does not increase self-evaluated happiness. Beyond a level already reached in many countries GDP growth delivers no more happiness, but continues to generate depletion and pollution. At a minimum we must not just assume that GDP growth is “economic growth”, but prove it. And start by trying to refute the mountain of contrary evidence.

While these policies will appear radical to many, it is worth remembering that they are amenable to gradual application. One hundred percent reserves can be approached gradually, the range of distribution can be restricted gradually, caps can be adjusted gradually, etc. Also these measures are based on the conservative institutions of private property and decentralized market allocation. They simply recognize that private property loses its legitimacy if too unequally distributed, and that markets lose their legitimacy if prices do not tell the whole truth about opportunity costs. In addition, the macro-economy becomes an absurdity if its scale is structurally required to grow beyond the biophysical limits of the Earth. And well before reaching that radical physical limit we are encountering the conservative economic limit in which extra costs of growth become greater than the extra benefits, ushering in the era of uneconomic growth, so far unrecognized.

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Soot (such as from diesels) even worse than we thought

Diesel smoke from a big truckImage via Wikipedia

Soot particles kill. How long before we stop putting children in fleets of yellow soot generators and then wondering about the weird increase in inhaler use by kids? How long can we, in good conscience, continue to operate diesel trains and buses? (Railed vehicles can all be electric; buses can all be natural gas-electric hybrids, or we can go back to electric buses served by overhead wires.)
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Unsolicited Plug 5: Saffron Supply Co.

There is an amazing gem in Salem, on Commercial, sandwiched in between two parts of the Union Gospel Mission operation -- a real, honest-to-God hardware store, staffed by guys who actually do stuff and know stuff. What a treasure. I've spoken to people who have lived in Salem much longer and who don't know what's behind that modest storefront.

They are so old school that they have no web presence that I can find. But they're open Mondays through Saturdays, and instead of pallet loads of stuff you don't need, you can go find exactly what you do need, along with some advice on how to use it. You can buy a single deck screw. A single hinge. A ball of real manila twine. Good tools at fair prices.

As you would expect, Saffron doesn't compete on price -- if you look around, you can often find a better price. But, unless you want Salem to be left with nothing but Home Lowepots (where you often find yourself dealing with staff who are even less experienced and knowledgeable than you are), we need to support local businesses who would never think of pretending that a high-schooler who has never built anything more complicated than a Lego house can help you in hardware.

They're at 325 Commercial St. NE, and the phone is 503-581-7501. Next time you have a hardware need, call and see if they can help before venturing out to one of the Home Lowepots.