Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
June 2018

The Water Economy, or, Geoengineering for Infidels

An adequate solution to the crisis requires muddying the distinction between the natural and the artificial. It requires not a choice between nature and technology, but a reorientation of their relationship to one another . . . . The economy and the climate will be aspects of a single system.
-Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

We're all familiar with that old picture of the water cycle, which goes: evaporation from the oceans, condensation into clouds or fog, precipitation as rain or snow, and runoff through the network of streams and rivers. What we've never been told (or at least I hadn't, until Peter Wohlleben) is that except for unusually big storms like hurricanes, this conveyor belt only works up to about 400 miles from a coastline. On another planet the answer to that equation might be different, of course, because any of the driving variables—sunlight, temperature, air pressure, wind speed, etc.—might also be different. In any case, it leaves open the question of why it ever rains in Kansas.

According to Wohlleben, continental forests act as a water ratchet, re-evaporating the rainfall and allowing the prevailing westerly winds to push it farther in towards the center of the continent before it falls again. Sure, the Rockies get in the way, creating a rain shadow on the eastern side, but if he's right, the gradual drying of the American interior west of the Mississippi River may have more to do with the clearing of Pacific forests a thousand miles away than anyone on-site has thought.

What if those parched agricultural communities, no longer able to rely on the Ogallala Aquifer's ground water, started suing coastal lumber companies for damages? The futuristic legal thriller has not been much explored in SF, though jokes about lawyers are pretty common. The present-day superhero lawyer Matt Murdock doesn't count in my mind, because his legal system is our legal system. The closest thing I know of was the short-lived show Century City, which was more of an ensemble drama about a law firm set in 2030 Los Angeles than a legal thriller.

In any case, my point is that we living things have been manipulating our environments for a long time. There was no free molecular oxygen in our atmosphere until cyanobacteria put it there some billions of years ago, accidentally depleting one “energy store” (the methane heat sink, which kept the planet warm enough for biochemistry to happen) and creating another (oxygen is a fantastic electron acceptor, which radically increased the energy yield of carbohydrates like sugars). At some points in our history, during the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, atmospheric carbon dioxide was nine times higher than it is now, even with all of our various burnings pumping it into the air as fast as we can make them go. Life is resilient. Our human societies, on the other hand, are as brittle as a politician's ego. We probably can't kill the planet, but we can hurt it, and we can sure as hell kill ourselves in the process. Jared Diamond's case study of Easter Island is a perfect scary example. A team at my alma mater did a more thorough job of exploring the possibilities with a long series of simulations.

What I want to propose this month is a large-scale example of what design theorists call biomimicry, or stealing good ideas from nature. We seem to have crippled the natural tree-driven water ratchet, so we need to replace it, at least until the trees grow back. Maybe we can even improve upon it, make it more regular. We now know how to desalinate ocean water by pushing it through very small-pored filters called ion exchange membranes. Any power source, from waves crashing at the shoreline to winds to solar, can drive this process. Then we could pump the resulting fresh water inland to store it, not just in large lakes behind concrete dams but in small tanks and ponds and wetlands, the way millions of beavers did it before our recent ancestors turned them into hats. This kind of distributed water storage is a major theme of permaculture, which I have spent the past twelve years applying to my own tiny suburban plot. Underground aquifers could store even more. This would solve one of the biggest problems with renewable energy from our computer-centric society's point of view: that of storing power from intermittent sources.

Hydrocarbons are valuable for the stability and energy density of their storage more than any other property. It makes them easy and efficient to transport through pipes. Fresh water has those same properties to a lesser degree, and it is non-toxic, unlike the heavy metals contained in coal and electrical batteries, and it doesn't explode, unless you split it into a hydrogen/oxygen mix through electrolysis (the way Larry Niven's shuttles in The Smoke Ring operated). Pumping that fresh water inland and uphill, against gravity, and storing it there is another huge reservoir of potential energy that could absorb all those bumps and spikes of supply and demand that have made our computer-dependent society reluctant to depend on intermittent sources like sun and wind.

Commerce being what it is, it's unlikely that we would simply replace the water flow that was lost when the forests were logged. Likely we'd figure out some way to exceed it, and cause further changes to those inland ecosystems. What would those ripple effects look like, ecologically and economically? Could we use the fast-growing prairie grasses to store carbon underground in their roots? Could we revive the buffalo and the prairie dog, or give elephants and rhinos a refuge from African poachers? Could we revive the small towns of the Midwest that nurtured the big-sky imaginations of Heinlein, Bradbury, and Vonnegut? Could we build starships in Nebraska (or wherever the hell Kirk was from in that first JJ Abrams movie)? Could we replace money with energy, as I suggested in my second column? Or with water, as a more easily measured unit? What ripple effects could that change have?

If those thoughts are not exotic enough for you, change the setting. How cool would it be to see the Sahara bloom from space (or from the ground, for that matter)? Or the Gobi, or the Mojave, or the Atacama? Not the whole of any of them, of course. As Frank Herbert wrote at the end of Dune:

“The Fremen have the word of Muad'Dib,” Paul said. “There will be flowing water open to the sky and green oases rich with good things. But we have the spice to think of, too. Thus, there will always be desert on Arrakis . . . and fierce winds, and trials to toughen a man.”

But we could get by with less than a third of the Earth being desert, right? Maybe a fifth, or a tenth? Vote for your favorite fraction on our Facebook poll. And get to work on those vaporators!

Recently certified permaculture designer Randall Hayes is personally celebrating World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought with beer and pretzels.



I haven’t read this whole book, just skimmed a few bits and was struck by the quote, which is from the epilogue on page 255.

Wohlleben, P. (2015). The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. Greystone Books, Vancouver / Berkeley.

A German forester, kind of a Radagast figure, mythologically.



Poe is often credited with inventing the detective story in 1841. True-crime compiled by lawyers is older, having started in 1650.






Neat little summary video, and a link to their peer-reviewed paper.



A search using this particular buzzword will turn up all kinds of interesting stuff.


Letting undergrads do my work for me.


An overview. Letting beavers do the work would be cheaper.

A Master’s thesis, something I’ve rarely cited here.

A published version of similar work. Note the third author is on the committee supervising the master’s student above. We’ll talk more about this next month.




Mollison, B., with Slay, R.M. (2011). Introduction to Permaculture. Tagari Publications, Tasmania, Australia.




This is the sequel, but I don't remember if the shuttles were described in the same level of detail in the first one as they were here.


A plug for his book Feral. Contains its own list of references.


Born Butler, Missouri


Born Waukegan, Illinois


Born Indianapolis, Indiana


Sorry, Iowa.



Herbert, F. (2016). Dune. Penguin Books. New York, NY.
Nice hardcover, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who makes everything nicer.

Dune also describes both economic and ritual water economies. Warning: spoilers aplenty.





I have not read this, but recently saw the movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture on Netflix and loved it.

Read more by Randall Hayes

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