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Autotrophic Infrastructure & How Real Work Gets Done: A Historical Dilemma

I’d like to revisit a few points I brought up in a piece that appeared here at the PRI Australia website in April last year; “Things That Can’t Last Forever, and Things That Can: A Few Thoughts”.

I’d like to begin with the following premise:

Economics is a continuation of energy by different means.

Classical physics defines energy as the ability to do work. Money represents the ability to do work. Fossil fuels furnish the ability to do work — quite a great deal of it — and, for the moment, relatively cheaply when one accounts for the finite nature of its supply in relation to what it facilitates.

Before the advent of fossil fuel (and modern finance), the ability to do work was represented by the possession of human chattel, or slaves. History, in its politics, economics, and social development, can be condensed into the unfolding of how work is accomplished in providing our human needs and subsequently how wealth is generated.

The ecosystem services that are provided by the natural world form the basis of all wealth creation. It is natural capital and is an investor’s primary asset. Given this premise, it makes no sense to destroy your primary asset in an effort to make money: it creates a variety of unforeseen, and I would assume unintended, problems.

If we can see how natural ecosystems and the services they provide are the very foundation of our ability to create wealth, it makes perfect sense for us to conclude that industries could be created that have as their explicitly stated goal the maintenance and improvement of these vital natural ecosystems.

From that perspective, permaculture stands as a wholly revolutionary concept in form and function given what it can potentially provide us with.

According to the UNEP (15mb PDF), ecosystem services have been estimated to be worth over 21–72 trillion USD every year — comparable to the World Gross National Income of 58 trillion USD in 2008.

Loss of biodiversity results in serious reductions in the goods (such as food, medicines and building materials) and the services (such as clean water, oxygen and nutrient cycling) that the earth’s ecosystems can provide and that make economic prosperity and human survival possible.

Logically speaking, one would do everything possible to either save or conserve the asset (at the very least) or improve its condition, subsequent worth and continued productivity (the ideal).

Ecosystem services play a similar role as the involuntary functions of the body. The job is done so well that you fail to take note of the work being done. Their value and essential importance is not realized until they are no longer available. When attempts are made to replace them, it is then seen how costly and difficult it is to duplicate their role. When drawing a parallel with even the best developments human technology has to offer, it is still nothing more than an extremely poor and clumsily executed imitation of something done by nature in an infinitely more effective, efficient, reliable, and elegant manner.

Quoting E.F. Schumacher:

A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was consuming its capital. How, then, could we overlook this fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth and, in particular, the economies of its rich passengers?

One reason for overlooking this vital fact is that we are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything we have not made ourselves.

Now we have indeed laboured to make some of the capital which today helps to produce a large fund of scientific, technological, and other knowledge; an elaborate physical infrastructure; innumerable types of sophisticated capital equipment, etc. — but all this is but a small part of the total capital we are using.

Far larger is the capital provided by nature and not by man — and we do not even recognize it as such. This larger part is now being used up at an alarming rate, and that is why it is an absurd and suicidal error to believe, and act on the belief, that the problem of production has been solved. — E.F. Schumacher, author of the seminal text Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, from Chapter 1 – “The Problem of Production”

Our collective technological progress has been facilitated through the systematic, engineered destruction and removal of what I like to call Autotrophic Infrastructure. It is critical to point out that ecosystems do comprise an infrastructure – something typically attributed exclusively to man made, constructed environments. Paul Ehrlich, the eminent Stanford University ecologist, and member of the National Academy of Sciences, has explicitly made this point.

Autotrophs are fundamental to the food chains of all ecosystems in the world. They take energy from the environment in the form of sunlight or inorganic chemicals and use it to create energy-rich molecules such as carbohydrates. Other organisms, called heterotrophs, take in autotrophs as food to carry out functions necessary for their life. Thus, heterotrophs – all animals, almost all fungi, as well as most bacteria and protozoa – depend on autotrophs for their energy by breaking down organic molecules (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) obtained in food. Carnivorous organisms ultimately rely on autotrophs because the nutrients obtained from their heterotrophic prey come from autotrophs they previously consumed.

Autotrophs can be phototrophs or lithotrophs (chemoautotrophs). Phototrophs use light as an energy source, while lithotrophs oxidize inorganic compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide, elemental sulfur, ammonium & ferrous iron into organic compounds.

The best energy conversion devices we’ve ever had access to for human use are autotrophic organisms. These biologically-based, organic, living energy conversion “machines” (an entirely inadequate & inappropriate term) fix their own energy from inorganic sources. Autotrophs are the true producers and form the very foundation of all ecosystems – and subsequently our very ability to physically exist.

No manmade technology is capable of doing what they do.

We’ve lived under the mistaken, misguided, & unfounded belief that we are able to improve upon the functioning of this existing autotrophic infrastructure by systematically removing it and replacing it with something artificial – which is, all things considered, vastly inferior functionally speaking.

The moment the energy that has been used to facilitate and power this infrastructural transplant becomes too expensive to use or increasingly more & more unavailable, we’re going to discover just how much of an unmitigated disaster this miscalculation has been.

For most of the 20th century, modern economies have been based on industries that have created jobs which destroy and degrade the very ecosystems we depend on for our survival — and in turn, degrade us.

This isn’t to suggest that technological development is devoid of considerable effort, thought, time, investment and planning. The fact is it has required an enormous amount of all of those factors – and considering that, it tells us a great deal when one examines the results. Technically speaking, our technological civilization is a remarkable feat to marvel at. Strategically speaking, it has been an incredibly foolish pursuit and a spectacular failure if one honestly observes what it has produced. Technological progress has been oversold and its value greatly exaggerated.

We have successfully created a world in which it is seen as being of more value to manage the problems created by our innovations rather than actually solving problems to begin with. Funnily enough, this is more often than not accomplished by utilizing this already existing autotrophic infrastructure in strategically astute ways – rather than relying on technological novelty and cleverness.

Soon, this realization will be unavoidable and forced upon us – for better or for worse. I’d like to think for the better.

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