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
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
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.
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
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,
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!
permaculture designer Randall Hayes is personally celebrating World
Day to Combat Desertification and Drought
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.
PUMPED-WATER ENERGY STORAGE
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
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.
Read more by Randall Hayes
I have not read this, but recently saw the movie A Futile and Stupid Gesture on Netflix and loved it.