Sunday, December 01, 2013

The single most important principle for sustainability

No doubt you know someone who's told you about his or her great aunt who lived to be 98 and never went to a doctor. Or maybe it was a grandparent who led a vigorous existence and never went to a hospital, not once. We think of such people as being the hardiest of the species. But, there might be an additional explanation. Has it ever occurred to you that both people were that healthy and vigorous BECAUSE they never went to a doctor or a hospital?

One estimate puts deaths from medical errors at around 200,000 per year in the United States, a number which does not, of course, include those injured but not killed and saddled with disabilities--both obvious and subtle--that can affect health for a lifetime. Now, why am I telling you a medical story if my topic is principles for sustainability?

The short answer is that medicine has a term for its errors--which include outright mistakes by physicians, but also adverse reactions to drugs and other treatments. And, it attempts to count these errors which it calls iatrogenic, meaning caused by the doctor's treatment.

But, we have iatrogenic-like errors and problems caused by all sorts of modern inventions and procedures in a wide array of professions, trades, and industries--inventions and procedures which are thought to be improvements over the past. Think about how financial derivatives were supposed to be far superior instruments for mitigating and managing risk in the marketplace--until the 2008 market meltdown showed derivatives to have enormous hidden risks!

The late CBS television reporter and commentator Eric Sevaried was famous for saying, "The chief cause of problems is solutions." Perhaps we should say "presumed" solutions. The main problem with these presumed solutions is that typically, we have very little history with them, especially if they are the product of recent technological innovation. So, the risks associated with these supposed "solutions" are largely hidden from us.

The "solutions" we find in nature (and therefore in our bodies which are part of nature) are tested through the evolutionary process for a very long time. They may not be perfect solutions. But neither are many modern pseudo-solutions to our perceived problems. In fact, these pseudo-solutions often make matters worse--sometimes much worse--for reasons that cannot be detected until it is too late (and sometimes not at all if the risks are well hidden). The watchword in the medical profession used to be, "First, do no harm." Now, it's intervene so that the patient thinks you are doing something. And that, it seems, has become true in so many other professions as well. How can the fee be justified otherwise?

So here, finally, is the principle: "The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural."

I take this principle directly from a book I've mentioned previously, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. And, my discussion of it is largely based on his observations. This principle is the clearest expression of the precautionary principle I've ever seen, and it is even more stringent.

Now, those who shower our air, water, soil and bodies with newfangled chemicals (some of them called pharmaceuticals), tell us that it is our responsibility to provide evidence that these novel chemicals are harmful. In fact, logic dictates that those who introduce non-natural substances into the environment should be obliged to prove that those substances are safe. Nature's record is long, unassailable and open to inspection. The chemical industry has been with us for less than 200 years, and the modern chemical industry as we know it is a post-World War II phenomenon, an industry not exactly celebrated for its openness to public scrutiny.

So, here's a corollary to the principle above. A novel substance or action used to address a perceived problem for individuals or society should have far greater benefits than natural substances or than just doing nothing. Taleb suggests absolutely NO medical treatment for minor ailments such as headaches (the temporary kind), muscle spasms, and indigestion, for example. Nature suggests a change of diet, a change of routine, or even a change of jobs, strategies which have little risk associated with them compared to novel treatments.

When it comes to broader planetary issues, the introduction of massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and modern farming practices, is clearly non-natural. The true risks remained largely hidden even 100 years after Svante Arrhenius did the first calculations concerning global warming in 1896.

(Arrhenius vastly underestimated the pace of that warming, calculating that it would take 2,000 years to double carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The current time line puts this event in the middle of this century. But, he was surprisingly close to modern estimates of the likely temperature change, about 5 degrees C. Incidentally, he did all these calculations by hand!)

Modern farming practices--the so-called Green Revolution--lulled the world into believing that farming could sustainably be transformed into just another industrial activity with cookie cutter instructions. Grain yields and food supplies bounded upward until the mid-1980s, when per-capita grain yields began to fall. They haven't fallen dramatically. But, the fact that they have fallen tells us that there are limits to what industrial farming can do. We have more grain, but less grain per person than we used to.

It turns out that these limits might result from what we are doing to the soil through such farming. The solution so far has been to pour more chemicals onto the land. But that, too, is starting to lose its effectiveness as yields level off or even drop in areas where soil has been depleted of its natural fertility.

The real solution has been to look to nature and how it preserves and enhances soil fertility. Organic farmers have known this for a long time. The problem from the modern point of view with this approach is that it would likely require many more people to be involved in growing food. Organic farming typically requires more labor inputs than the machine-driven agriculture of monocrop grain farms.

All of this is not to say that NO improvements can be made over what is naturally occurring. More precisely, it is to say that the proposed improvements ought to be so compelling and so advantageous that any unanticipated downsides can be tolerated. A patient near death is unlikely to complain much about long-term side effects if the medicine saves him or her. One who has a headache but ends up with, say, a rare, life-threatening blood disorder from the treatment, will almost certainly conclude that the cure was not worth the (hidden) cost.

Expectant mothers who took thalidomide to relieve the distressing (but temporary) symptoms of morning sickness--only to have deformed children later-- were unknowingly taking large risks for small immediate gains. And, that seems to be the problem with much of what we label "progress." It's only progress until the unanticipated side effects kick in.

Okay, so let's think for a minute about the previously announced principle for sustainability: "The non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural." Think about how deeply conservative that principle is. And, here I mean conservative in what has become an almost archaic sense of the word, that is, to conserve those practices and attitudes which have proven themselves truly sustainable over the ages.

What passes for conservative today is actually a radical political and economic agenda to strip the world of its resources as quickly as possible and turn them into wealth for a small elite. There is absolutely nothing conservative about this program.

But even those who style themselves liberal are typically only a few steps behind their pseudoconservative adversaries. Many of the world's progressives essentially believe that we should strip the world of its resources as well, only at a more measured rate while sharing the spoils more equitably. Both ways of thinking, however, have modern human society racing toward destruction. And, political liberals--who congratulate themselves for being open to the newest trends--may be even more susceptible to new technologies and methods that come with large hidden costs.

This piece is not a call to reverse history. That would be futile even if that's what I were proposing. Rather, it is a call to look with considerable skepticism on so-called "solutions" to the present crises that have no antecedent in nature or no long relevant tradition in society--and to place a special burden on technological solutions to show how they are far better than what nature suggests to us.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. The emerging sharing economy is based on the relevant and longstanding tradition of sharing with neighbors. It is not really a technological innovation so much as it is a social innovation--one, that is, well, not exactly new.

What's new is that the Internet makes sharing across vast distances with people you don't know possible--sharing extra rooms, cars, and office space, for example. The founders of the sharing economy didn't invent sharing; nor did they invent the Internet. They simply took an age-old tradition and used now existing technology to take advantage of huge unused capacity available worldwide in people's homes and driveways.

By my lights, this is an innovation that has big advantages over building more cars, more offices, and more hotels, by lowering overall consumption and freeing people from ownership of things which they only need occasionally.

In this I'm admitting that the Internet--a hog for electricity--might have net benefits when these kinds of insights are applied to it.

The criteria I've suggested for evaluating innovations are not scientific, nor could they be since they touch on values. But at least they offer a way to sift through the plethora of ideas for a sustainable world and ask whether these ideas themselves are sustainable and advantageous on their face.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Anonymous said...

Sustainability requires a full cycle, full system analysis. I think sharing cars will fall rather short in this analysis because there is nothing sustainable about cars. There is probably nothing about modern life that could remotely be called sustainable.
Sustainable requires the total elimination of wastes. With regard to agriculture the biggest waste is the nutrients which are for all intents and purposes flushed out to sea. So it's no surprise we need to reapply more nutrients every season.

The lack of full systems thinking is exactly why solutions are the biggest cause of problems, and why we are, where we are today. That and the fact that human nature by and large is not geared toward systems thinking, which is fine if we are living like animals, but humans long ago attempted to step outside the ecosystem, there are limits to the extent both in time and space that you can do that for.

Kurt Cobb said...

I agree with anonymous that we need full cycle analysis, and that sharing cars fall short on this count. However, I think we should not dismiss incremental, interim approaches that reduce overall throughput. There is no way to convince human societies to go back to an agrarian or hunter/gatherer culture, not in the short run. While current human numbers MIGHT be supported with a wholesale change to organic agriculture (meaning a lot more people, maybe the majority are growing food), a hunter/gatherer culture would mean drastically fewer humans able to survive, especially in the degraded environment we now have.

In rejecting incremental approaches, I think anonymous is, in effect, rejecting the most effective avenue we have for change. I know only too well that half measures will not suffice. But, when the choice is between half measures and nothing, we should not foolishly reject the half measures unless they prove to be more injurious than current practices. Hence, my emphasis on the sharing part of the equation here rather than the existing infrastructure which will be with us for some time no matter what we may wish.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Kurt, I always look forward to your posts.
You make a good point about incremental changes, and I can see the importance as steps on the journey. I am generally pessimistic that they will happen in a timely manner to allow a dignified descent, but I have made peace with that.
I sometimes think of pre industrial Japan as an example of a sustainable civilised society. There most definitely were cycles, but overall they managed a relatively high population density, without degrading their habitat. For a thousand years or so.
Their agriculture was obviously organic, but not as we know it. Modern organics still use the same amounts of fertilisers, the only difference is the nitrogen comes from fish or seaweed, not natural gas or lignite. The same for other nutrients, the phosphate is rock, or guano etc.
The Japanese and many other cultures had various methods of composting, or directly applying 'night soil'. Which means a nearly closed nutrient cycle, with the exception of bodies.
I have seen some signs of this in my own town where the council has just introduced a system where a tiny fraction of liquid sewerage is being applied to pasture, to be made into hay. It stinks like you wouldn't believe, but it's a start.

Regards, Andy

Mark Robinowitz said...

Sustainability would require not using anything that is depleted through using it. Therefore, any use of fossil fuels or mineral ores is not sustainable. A 100 mpg (42 km. per liter) car is efficient but not sustainable. It's why I spell it "sustain - a - bull."

Jeavon's paradox comes to mind, too.

Mark Goldes said...

Revolutionary technology is being born that is sustainable.

See FUEL-FREE TURBINE at for an engine that needs no fuel and opens the door to future hybrid cars that have unlimited range.

These engines as well as patent pending piston engines will exhaust cold air. They can be thought of as refrigerators that generate electricity.

Accelerating the development and widespread mass production of these difficult-to-believe new technologies is the challenge.

Many millions of engines pumping out cold air instead of heat is a remarkable new possibility.

This opens the door to superseding fossil and nuclear fuels all of which produce huge amounts of heat.

Hybrid electric cars with turbines that need no fuel and produce cold air can sell electricity to utilities when suitably parked. No wires required.

Imagine the impact on the economy of cars, trucks and buses that may pay for themselves in this manner.

Government funding is not needed. A few individuals with an appetite for risk will soon change the world.

Anonymous said...

The single most important principle is to be more generous to the resources you depend on than you consume of those same resources ("sustainable" doesn't account for random catastrophe over the long term, but evolution does).
One of the principle ways to connect people with those resources is by understanding where they make decisions (cash register) and putting the overhead cost of their consumption at that point (sales taxes to replace all obfuscated costs such as income taxes). A slowing economy is a lot less regressive than a dead planet.

Anonymous said...

Mark Goldes' latest adventure in flimflam is to declare that a "FUEL-FREE TURBINE invented by a Russian scientist runs on atmospheric pressure."

But when we read the patent application, we find that actually the turbine does NOT run on atmospheric pressure - it requires compressed air. This is clearly indicated even in the article by Kondrashov posted by Goldes on his flimflam website. Kondrashov says:

"To create a sample of such an engine, you can use ready-made devices, such as a load-bearing element - a low-power turbine module turboshaft turbine engine, and to compress the air... any type of compressor..."

Kondrashov filed his patent application in 2003. No patent was awarded.

Mark Goldes assures us in his note prefacing Kondrashov's article that "We understand the science behind this jet engine." But since he incorrectly describes it as an engine powered by "atmospheric pressure" - which it certainly is not - in fact he shows that he doesn't even understand that the engine requires a supply of compressed air in order to spin at all.

Although Kondrashov does pretend in some of his statements that the turbine will be powered by "atmospheric pressure," in fact it is evident from his application that the proposed turbine is made to spin only by the use of compressed air.

In his patent application, Kondrashov states:

"To set the above engine in operation, it is necessary to create pressure of working medium (e.g. air) in pneumatic accumulator 18. The compressed air is fed through check valve 19 and/or 20."

Thus, Kondrashov indicates that an external compressor must be used to fill the turbine's compressed air tank before the turbine can be started. But he seems to expect that once the turbine starts to spin, there will be no further reliance on the external compressor - the spinning turbine itself will compress the air that is making the turbine spin. So despite his own false description of the turbine as making use of "low-grade atmospheric energy," what Kondrashov actually presents in his patent application is a perpetual motion machine in the form of a self-powered air compressor. This is probably the reason why no patent was awarded. It is exactly analogous to trying to use a generator to power a motor to spin the generator to power the motor to spin the generator. It doesn't work.

Anonymous said...

Mark Goldes' "Aesop Institute" has engaged for many years in the practice of soliciting loans and donations under an endless series of false pretenses, that it is developing and even "prototyping" various "revolutionary breakthroughs," such as "NO FUEL ENGINES" that run on ambient heat alone - or run on "Virtual Photon Flux" - or on "Collapsing Hydrogen Orbitals" - or even on the acoustic energy of sound from a horn.

Aesop Institute's make-believe strictly ambient heat engine is ruled out by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This has been understood by physicists for at least 180 years. There is no "new science" that has ever determined such an engine to be possible.

Aesop Institute's make-believe "Virtual Photon Flux" engine is based on the idea that accessible electric power "is everywhere present in unlimited quantities" - which we know to be false.

Aesop Institute's make-believe "Collapsing Hydrogen Orbital" engine is based on Randell Mills' theory of "hydrino" hydrogen, which every scientist knows to be false.

Aesop Institute's make-believe horn-powered engine is based on the pretense that a magnetized tuning rod could somehow "multiply energy" - a ludicrous notion, which is obviously ruled out by the law of conservation of energy.

Aesop Institute's very latest make-believe engine is a perpetual motion machine in the form of a self-powered air compressor, which uses a turbine to compress air to spin the turbine to compress air to spin the turbine.

Aesop Institute has never offered the slightest shadow of evidence that it is actually developing or "prototyping" any of these make-believe physics-defying "revolutionary breakthroughs." All it has ever offered are mere declarations that it is doing so - unsupported by any proof whatever, of any kind whatever.

There are no "revolutionary breakthroughs" to be found on Goldes' fraudulent "Aesop Institute" website. There is only pseudoscience, relentless flimflam, and empty claims of engines that are ruled out by the laws of physics.

Anonymous said...

Let's look at another example of Mark Goldes' wonderful offerings in "revolutionary new technology:"

The amazing "POWERGENIE!"

One of the most laughable of Mark Goldes' many pseudotypes is his "POWERGENIE" horn-powered generator. The brilliant idea of this revolutionary breakthrough is to blow a horn at a magnetized tuning rod, designed to resonate at the frequency of the horn, and then collect the electromotive energy produced by the vibrations of the rod.

We're not making this up.

POWERGENIE tuning rod engine explained - from the patent:

[The device incorporates] "an energy transfer and multiplier element being constructed of a ferromagnetic substance... having a natural resonance, due to a physical structure whose dimensions are directly proportional to the wavelength of the resonance frequency...

"In this resonant condition, the rod material functions as a tuned waveguide, or longitudinal resonator, for acoustic energy...

"Ferrite rod 800 is driven to acoustic resonance at the second harmonic of its fundamental resonant frequency by acoustic horn 811..."

- But the patent doesn't tell us who will volunteer to blow the horn at the rod all day. Perhaps it will come with an elephant.

Mark Goldes claimed in 2008 that this wonderful triumph of human genius would bring his company, Magnetic Power Inc, one billion dollars in annual revenue by 2012. Magnetic Power is now defunct, having never produced any "Magnetic Power Modules" - just as Goldes' company called "Room Temperature Superconductors Inc" is also now defunct, having never produced any "room temperature superconductors."

Anonymous said...

In Mark Goldes' patent application for his ludicrous "POWERGENIE" horn-powered tuning-rod engine, he described the tuning-rod as "an energy transfer and multiplier element."

But of course, for the tuning-rod to "multiply" energy, it would need to disprove the law of conservation of energy.

Goldes' use of the term "energy multiplier element" reflected his pretense that the "revolutionary breakthrough" of the amazing "POWERGENIE" could disprove the law of conservation of energy, by presenting the world with a working "energy multiplier."

Goldes even claimed in 2008 that the POWERGENIE had been demonstrated already in an electric car, driven 4800 miles by his energy-multiplying horn-powered tuning-rod.

But it seems that most people, for some reason, had difficulty accepting the notion that the law of conservation of energy could be proven false.

And Goldes no doubt noticed that the Second Law of Thermodynamics - that "the entropy of an isolated system tends to increase with time and can never decrease" - is much less clear to most people than the conservation of energy.

So now, after leaving aside the pretense that he could somehow "multiply energy" with a magnetized tuning-rod, Goldes has chosen to focus, instead, on the pretense that he can disprove the Second Law with an engine powered only by ambient heat.

There is no "new science" in any of Goldes' "revolutionary breakthroughs." There is only pseudoscience and pretense - and nothing new, at all.

Anonymous said...

Mark Goldes' proofless claims regarding his make-believe strictly ambient heat engine do not represent any new technology, or even a new pretense - they merely represent a rather old pretense.

"Before the establishment of the Second Law, many people who were interested in inventing a perpetual motion machine had tried to circumvent the restrictions of First Law of Thermodynamics by extracting the massive internal energy of the environment as the power of the machine. Such a machine is called a "perpetual motion machine of the second kind". The second law declared the impossibility of such machines."

"A perpetual motion machine of the second kind is a machine which spontaneously converts thermal energy into mechanical work. When the thermal energy is equivalent to the work done, this does not violate the law of conservation of energy. However it does violate the more subtle second law of thermodynamics (see also entropy). The signature of a perpetual motion machine of the second kind is that there is only one heat reservoir involved... This conversion of heat into useful work, without any side effect, is impossible, according to the second law of thermodynamics."

Goldes' make-believe strictly ambient heat engine would be a perpetual motion machine of the second kind, as defined above. Goldes is not developing any such engine; he is merely developing a pretense - as usual.

Anonymous said...

The Kelvin-Planck formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics may be stated as follows:

"No cyclic process driven simply by heat can accomplish the absorption of the heat from a reservoir and the conversion of such heat into work - without any other result (such as a transfer of heat to a cooler reservoir)."

Now, as you will see, the Clausius formulation of the Second Law may be stated with fewer words:

"No process is possible whose sole result is the transfer of heat from a cooler to a hotter body."

In fact, we can show that the Kelvin-Planck formulation may be deduced from that of Clausius. In the words of Enrico Fermi:

"Suppose that Kelvin's postulate were not valid. Then we could perform a transformation whose only final result would be to transform completely into work a definite amount of heat taken from a single source at the temperature t1. By means of friction we could then transform this work into heat again and with this heat raise the temperature of a given body, regardless of what its initial temperature, t2, may have been. In particular, we could take t2 to be higher than t1. Thus, the only final result of this process would be the transfer of heat from one body (the source at temperature t1) to another body at a higher temperature, t2. This would be a violation of the Clausius postulate."

Can anyone make a teapot that boils water by absorbing heat from blocks of ice?

Anonymous said...

Max Planck, in his "Treatise On Thermodynamics," explains how the Second Law of Thermodynamics "may be deduced from a single simple law of experience about which there is no doubt." Here is the "single simple law of experience" he proposes:

"It is impossible to construct an engine which will work in a complete cycle, and produce no effect except the raising of a weight and the cooling of a heat-reservoir."

This "law of experience" is very similar to a principle suggested by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin):

"It is impossible, by means of inanimate material agency, to derive mechanical effect from any portion of matter by cooling it below the temperature of the coldest of the surrounding objects."

The "simple law of experience" offered by Planck is therefore commonly known as the "Kelvin-Planck statement" of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But we see from Planck's "Treatise" that Planck himself did not quite regard it as a statement of the Second Law, but rather as a "starting point" or postulate from which the Second Law may be deduced.

Here is Planck's rendition of the Second Law itself:

"The second law of thermodynamics states that there exists in nature for each system of bodies a quantity, which by all changes of the system either remains constant (in reversible processes) or increases in value (in irreversible processes). This quantity is called, following Clausius, the entropy of the system."

Anonymous said...

The Second Law of Thermodynamics rules out strictly ambient heat engines.

Expecting an ambient heat engine to do any work, with only one heat reservoir, is exactly equivalent to expecting a teapot to boil water by absorbing heat from a block of ice.

Both processes are ruled out by the very same law - the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

"It is impossible for any device operating on a cycle to produce net work from a single temperature reservoir; the production of net work requires flow of heat from a higher temperature reservoir to a colder reservoir."

In a strictly ambient heat engine there are not two heat reservoirs at different temperatures; no reservoir would be available at any temperature other than the ambient temperature. Therefore the engine would have to DECREASE the total entropy - and therefore we know for certain that the engine will disappoint us. It will never be able to do any work.

Flow of heat from a block of ice to lukewarm water would also result in a DECREASE of the total entropy.

Once again: Expecting an ambient heat engine to do any work, with only one heat reservoir, is exactly equivalent to expecting a teapot to boil water by absorbing heat from a block of ice. Anyone who claims to be developing a "prototype" of such an engine is only developing a pretense, and nothing more.