01 April 2008

All that lives is food

Not everything that is food is alive -- mineral supplements would be problematic, as would the whole question of nitrogen fixation -- but the most basic thing about anything alive is that something is going to eat it.
There are exceptions; some dead things fossilize or undergo other depositional fates, but fundamentally, "alive" and "food" are synonyms; the entire natural world is a collection of replicating patterns engaged in converting each other and each other's parts, remains, and by-products into themselves.
This is where "reduce, reuse, recycle" breaks down.
It's a good idea; anything that reduces energy use is a pretty good idea, too.
But it's not anything like a sufficient idea, because the whole machine economy operates open-loop.
Stuff gets dug up, processed, generally using energy sources that were also dug up, over multiple iterations, used, and maybe some portions of the content are recovered. Something like the Mountain Equipment Co-Op "Garment Recycling Program" for polyester garments is doing very well, relatively speaking, but it's also got a very limited footprint, isn't doing complete recovery, and is one element (though the primary element) out of the garments; stuff like dye, zippers, thread, lining membranes, and what not aren't recovered.
So there is an inevitable pile of output -- garbage -- and more stuff getting dug up. Recovery technology for digging stuff up gets better and better; present mining activity often uses things that wouldn't have been recognized as ore a hundred years ago.
Some of it gets recycled; generally the easy bits (steel, aluminium, glass, newsprint...) but most of it winds up in land fill.
Organic byproducts -- sewage, grey water, grass clippings, manure -- are left to rot, out gassing merrily all the while, and new fresh water is drawn from somewhere, and new fertilizer, dug up somewhere else, is put on the fields for the next crop.
The idea that this is a bad thing is widespread, and there are initial projects to do things like trap and burn for fuel the methane given off by rotting manure. (A good idea, unlike the direct conversion of crops into bio-fuels, which is a ghastly bad idea.)
What is not widespread is the idea that the machine culture needs to become a form of life, and to exist in a pattern modelled after that of life, at least in as much as all that is made is also raw materials.
This goes for running the output of sewage back on to the fields, into the gas lines, and the drinking water supply; it goes for -- when we can build them -- having small, semi-autonomous machines that eat the wrappers and the cans in the public parks; and it goes for intensive loop-closing regulation, requiring manufacturers to accept the return of their product for re-processing.
None of this is hard; none of this is even unprofitable, it's just a new constraint. Evenly applied, without exception, it will lead to a great deal of new innovation, increased prosperity, efficiency, and of course change.
Change for the better is not to be feared.

1 comment:

jennie said...

Hmmm...so if I got my coffee- and cinnamon-bun making robot slave, I'd have to have it run on energy derived from coffee grounds?