March 9, 2011

Energy Cycling

Ben Falk writes in Vermont Commons (click the title of this post for the entire piece):

Why are trees – especially nut trees – at the basis of these regenerative land use systems and highly adapted human cultures? In the simplest terms, it has to do with inputs and outputs. A nut tree is simply more effective and efficient at converting sunlight and precipitation into value, over the long term, than any other technology humans have yet designed.

This becomes clear when comparing biological systems in general with non-living technologies. Consider a photovoltaic panel or wind turbine. Each requires large and damaging inputs to generate single outputs. What are the inputs for a photovoltaic panel? Bauxite from which to smelt the aluminum frame, silicon and numerous other minerals (many only found in difficult-to-access and a dwindling number of places on the planet), and myriad other mined and smelted metals and minerals. These all must be mined, transported, refined, transported again, then fabricated, then shipped again. All for one output: electricity.

What are the inputs required for a nut tree? An exchange between breeder and planter, transporting of the seed or seedling, some woodchip mulch, rain, and sunshine. And time. What are its yields? Oxygen, soil, wildlife food and housing, moisture retention, carbon sequestration, air filtration, human food, stock feed, building materials, shade, windbreak, and beauty, to name a few.

The former resource path – the abiotic – provides us with a practical service at great cost. The latter, biological (or “soft”) path creates an enduring and generative legacy of positive value. And whereas a solar panel or wind turbine or green building offers diminishing yields over time, a nut tree’s output actually increases, for at least the first century or two of its lifetime.

Such is the power – and imperative – of biological systems: they are the only means we have of sidestepping entropy, at least for significant periods of time, on this planet. That’s what tips the balance; it all comes down to capture, storage, and transfer. The best system is the one that can harvest the most sunlight and moisture, then store that value for the longest period of time while converting some of it into products and services that other living things, like humans, can use. And biological systems do this very well, while non-living mechanical systems cannot.

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