Sunday, October 17, 2010

Too Many Of Us

Gliese 581c, By Graphic Artist John Kaufman

There is simply too many of us. Looking around the world, traveling as I do for my job, its obvious that there are simply too many humans. We are eating ourselves out of house and home. Tiara Walters, a South African journalist working for the Sunday Times here in Johannesburg wrote in her column today that "human demand on the biosphere more than doubled between 1961 and 2007, but the global population is only projected to stabilize at 9.22 Billion people in 2075".

Already, according to Lester Brown and other thinkers, we have passed the Earth's renewable carrying capacity and are living on ancient water deposits and borrowed time.

That we are running out of food, fuel and everything needed to make people happy and healthy members of society may not be apparent to people in developed nations. They have the financial resources to stand closer to the front of the growing queue. But in Developing countries such as Mozambique or Bangladesh the people are much further behind, lacking the cash resources to afford the rising costs that are becoming a measure of food scarcity. Bread riots last month in Mozambique are a perfect example of how even a modest cost rise can lead to civil unrest when people are living hand to mouth.

What is about humanity that we think that the right to reproduce is inalienable and permanent? This is clearly at odds with the carrying capacity of this particular piece of farmland that we call the Earth. So I have been thinking up solutions, some off the cuff and some simply impossible, but the status quo must change, of that there is no question. Population pressure will push out all of our wilderness into city parks and the margins of maize fields, with a massive extinction and an even higher risk of the sensitive food distribution system collapsing. (Systems become more susceptible to catastrophic failure the more highly organized they become, according to the law of entropy).

This is scary stuff. Not many voters, writers or thinkers are seriously even considering espousing many of these ideas, since they inevitably smack of the "one child" Chinese policy, with all its ghastly implications like infanticide. I have left out the more nightmarish "final solution" type ideas and focused on what may be the most equitable and random way of doing away with our excess folks.

1) Create a breeding ticket lottery. A yearly lottery is held that prospective people can enter and receive a breeding ticket, completely randomly.
This idea can only work in highly organized societies, the kind of societies where a rising birth rate is not a problem today, replete with good medical care and a draconian civil police force with informers and the idea of neighbors ratting out neighbors about that secret child in the basement.

2) Cyanide capsules on a rolling system that slightly increases the death rate in an equitable fashion.
This needs a less organized society and is a much more democratic process since everyone would be required to participate. However, the idea of popping a pill once a year in the chance that you will be that unlucky one in fifty that kicks it would probably turn off voters.

3) Focus the capital of the world in the pockets of a few countries that are insulated, with enough food to get them through bar environmental catastrophe, and let rest of the world's uneducated and poor people starve slowly to death.
The moral implications of this are perhaps the most ghastly, rivaled only by Hitler
-no wait, even he killed most people quickly.

With the discovery of Gliese 581c only twenty light years away, there could be a chance we could get off of this planet and take over another. Obviously twenty light years is still far away, too far even, but the implications of this discovery go beyond this odd little world that has all the goldilocks qualities we have been looking for. The reason we found it is because it is so close to its dim, cold star. But since there is a planet that could be habitable in such an unlikely planetary system, most astronomers feel that planets could be as common as pickled cabbage at a Korean wedding. Meaning that aside from euthanasia, breeding tickets and certain death for the poor, there may be a close-by neighbor we could invade and occupy in our time-honored human tradition.

All levity aside, what do we do? Its a conundrum, it is serious, it is the worst kind of political hot potato, and its only going to get worse. So rather than point fingers at people who may have taken the go forth and multiply idea a bit far, we should all be thinking about what we can do to sort it out, or nature will do it for us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

An Energy Revolution: Micro-Hydro Power

Watch The Video:

Pat Downey lives in the tiny little town of Hofmeyer, South Africa. This little town on the edge of the great Karoo Desert seems like an unlikely place for one of Africa's most innovative water engineers to live. There is a small general store, a gas station where you have to wake up the attendant, and surprisingly, a lot of rushing water in the Fish River, used to irrigate the dry farmland scattered around the desert hills.

Downey is a gentle, unassuming man, with the language of an inventor and a slightly stooped gate. Since the 1970s he has been pioneering technology that generates electrical power from small water-driven turbines. These turbines do not need a dam to build up water pressure, but rather they divert a small part of a river and harvest electricity from the kinetic energy generated by a small drop in height.

Water is a storehouse of kinetic energy. The hydrological cycle that lifts water out of the oceans and off the land through evaporation is run on solar energy. The sun heats the water and the air, evaporation occurs and the kinetic energy from this process is stored in the water. Then the water, full of energy, falls on distant mountains high up, and runs down rivers to the sea, all the while giving up that energy as splashing waterfalls and crashing rapids. Every gorgeous waterfall is a massive release of stored kinetic energy.

For a large-scale hydro-electric dam, those gorgeous waterfalls are flooded by a big lake, the stored water is backed up into a stunning gorge that will forever be lost to admiring eyes. Not so with micro-hydro systems like the ones Downey makes.

These smalls systems divert a small amount of water around the waterfall. Generally less than 1% of the total flow. The water falls through a pipe, spins a small turbine, and is dropped into the little pool at the base of the waterfall. For an average sized river like the Fish, a little fifteen foot (4m) drop can generate enough electrical power for fifty low-cost houses.

Small hydro systems like this can survive floods, they have a very small impact on the environment, they never silt up, and they can operate for as long as they are maintained, unlike massive dams which fill up with sediment and become useless over the years.

So why are they not more widespread?
Electricity in South Africa has been kept at an artificially low price for decades. The country sought to spur investment and growth with electricity subsidies to farmers and towns. Downey tried to sell these systems, but their initial cost was just too high. That has changed now. The national electrical grid has had to become profitable, and to do that they have had to raise prices by a whopping 140% in the last three years.

Correspondingly the demand for his systems has gone through the roof. At today's prices, the systems pay for themselves in three to four years. Today he cannot keep up with all the orders, "the emails just come flooding in, we can't keep up!" He explains in his wavering excited voice.

For a man who struggled and worked for years in obscurity, waiting for just this moment, he is clearly enjoying every moment of it.