subscribe to the RSS Feed

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

There is an evolutionary biology story of stuff – are you ready to hear it?

Posted by steve on July 29, 2010

You would think that with signals everywhere about how world energy production has peaked, there would be more rational discussion generally about how to prepare for the future. In some ways, our way of living is ridiculously wasteful of energy. At least ten litres of fuel are used to get the 50 litres of petrol to your local filling station and into your car. And when you go and pick up the shopping in the car, you use more energy in the transport to do that than is embodied in the calories in the food itself. In fact we are surrounded by huge amounts of energy in embodied form. To make a car uses nearly as much energy as the car uses over its lifetime.

Embodied energy – emergy – and why we need so much of it is an evolutionary conundrum

For scientifically minded people like myself who like to put things in spreadsheets and do back of envelope calculations this all seems like dysfunctional behaviour gone mega. You would think there would be a drive for all of us to live better on less energy, more equitably at that, which would reduce wars and crime. However, the biologist in me has another explanation. To understand this conundrum you need to think about evolution.

When you go and pick up the shopping in the car, you use more energy in the transport  than is embodied in the calories in the food itself.

I remember being on a biology field-trip during my university studies way back in the 70s, and my lecturer pointing out the shape of one of the shells of the snails living in the woods.

“Isn’t evolution a mystery?” he said. “That large protuberance on the side of the shell has no function, and it has taken a lot of energy for the snail to make it. Still the snails survive. You would think evolution would make everything a lot more energy effective.”

At first thoughts one might be tempted to think that the snail shell shape was a snapshot in time of shells evolving towards a more energy-effective future and a better design. In fact, today, the discussion is very much alive in sustainability circles. The term emergy, short for embedded energy, means the energy required to get a product into your possession, for example for a car it could be from mine to driveway.

You  might  think mammals’ energy use is  a snapshot in time evolving towards a more energy-effective future. You would be so wrong.

However, looking at the animal kingdom, mammals and birds especially, although nature is highly energy efficient, you see peacocks with giant spectacular feathers, lions with huge manes, elk with magnificent antlers etc. There is something more than energy efficiency behind all this; and it has to do with mating.

A theory of evolutionary biology says that animals, often males, develop features signalling they have an excess of energy. This makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Crudely put, the female thinks “if he has all that excess energy to make those stupid antlers then he probably has enough to look after me and all the wonderful kids we are going to have”.

What does this all have to do with the peak of oil production? Well, humans work the same way too. We don’t develop protuberances or fancy feathers, but we are nuts about making things look really neat, shiny, straight, flat, fancy, big … you get the idea. I could go on for ages.

This drive to make great stuff, including clothes and running all the way up past yachts to skyscrapers is in part down to a built-in evolutionary drive to procreate. As we are flock animals, the position in the flock is important for the couple so both males and females drive the creation and acquisition of possessions that signal excess of energy.

We are not going to address peak oil until we address our own built-in natural drives.

By now you will probably realise this drive is comparative. For the couple to establish their rank in the flock they need to be a little bit better than others they see around them. Put another way, there is an evolutionary drive in humans to use excess energy to form the environment around them. In a way, this is forming themselves, the environment and possessions define who they are.

Stepping aside from the deeper discussion of how this drive operates in society, we turn to the incredulous scientists – standing with an advanced calculator in their hand wondering how the population of the Earth can use so much energy and get so little achieved.

Some examples: despite the fact we have used up around half of the world’s oil reserves, more people are in poverty, without food and water and education than ever before. Despite years of research and development we are still driving around in cars that give the same gas mileage as the Model T Ford. And the third largest cause of death is in the transport system.

A growing number of scientifically educated people, me included, are baffled by the apparent disinterest in doing anything about creating a standard of living using planet friendly levels of energy.

But of course we still love our shiny stuff, we scientifically minded still want to establish our position in society so we still exhibit high emergy behaviour. We have to find a way – and you could call it new technology of you like although not the kind of technology that requires machines – to act as responsible stewards of the planet whilst living with the genetic drives built in to us. We need if you like, an inner way to come to terms with these animal drives. We already have advanced practices to deal with aggression (laws, policing) and sex drive (moral codes, marriage). This technology (maybe I should use another term – like cultural value and practice) could include rites of passage into adulthood, ceremonies, training from elders, self-imposed limits, all kind of things.

Which brings me to my final reflection: these things are probably to be found in ancient tribal cultures. Tribal cultures appeared in a context where the amount of energy available was constant (for example what the forest, in walking distance, gave in terms of fruit and animals). Let us find the bearers of these cultures and go and talk to them before they disappear from the face of the earth, killed by fast food, runaway trucks or fossil-fuel powered war.

Follow up from Mundekulla conference

Posted by steve on July 26, 2010

The experience of presenting and being part of the sustainability conference 17-18th July at Mundekulla was quite amazing. So amazing that I’m putting together a longer reflection. For now, a video from the speakers.

Meet me at the Sustainability Conference in Sweden 17-18 July

Posted by steve on July 7, 2010

2nd Sustainability Conference 17-18 July in Mundekulla, near Emmaboda, Sweden.

This year’s theme: “Man and Nature”

“Think seven generations forward in every important decision”

Native American proverb

Scientists, business leaders, politicians and ordinary people are increasingly beginning to question our lifestyle.
How has it become the way it is  and what can we do about it? How can we create a sustainable future?
These questions are vitally important and affect  us all. The change begins with each of us and together we can make a difference if we take these  issues seriously ….
The conference takes place in conjunction with the annual Circle Way Camp

Inspiring lectures, meetings and talks!
Welcome to experiential events where you get inspiration to take steps towards your vision of how to live, work and live. Over the weekend, involved representatives from different parts of the world will give their perspective on the human attitude towards nature. After each lecture small groups will gather where everyone can express their own thoughts and attitudes.  The  weekend concludes with an “Open Space Forum” in which all participants are invited to share their thoughts. On Saturday night, we offer film shows, slide shows, dance, movement and mingling. Lectures are held in simple English and translated on request.

From the programme:
-The Original Instructions
Has the man lost his original relationship with nature? Is there a way back?
Listen to a fascinating lecture based on the original Indian wisdom
Indian Medicine Story, 81 years (USA) & Ellika Linden
-Transition Towns / Transition Sweden
A unique worldwide initiative to meet the challenges of peak oil and climate change. It starts with you and me and local initiatives!
Stephen Hinton (England), author of the book “Inventing for the Sustainable Planet”

From mechanical to ekocentrisk worldview! What do the ancient and modern philosophers (Aristotle, Descartes, James Lovelock and Peter Singer on our relationship with nature.
Tania Rebel (Holland) MD in Ethics, Religion, Society

-Permaculture and The Cuban Way
A fascinating lecture on Sustainable Development in South Africa and Cuba! Be inspired by the basics of Permaculture – an approach that includes everything from farming to urban planning.
Ezio Gori (SA) Sustainable Development Consultant
-Auroville – A Sustainable Example
Auroville is a unique eco-village in India where people from all over the world live and have created a common vision and a sustainable example

Saturday at 09:30, 17 July – Sunday at 17:00, July 18 (Arrive Friday evening)

Stay  in tents (for free), mobile home, dormitory, single electricity. doubles.

All meals are included such as lunch, dinner on Saturday and breakfast, lunch and refreshments on Sunday.

Price including food
1600: – in your own tent
Reduced rates for children and adolescents and the possibility to rent rooms

Extra night
We offer the opportunity to arrive a day before according to the pricing below.
100: – in your own tent
150: – on the mattress in the dormitory
250: – in double room with shared shower & toilet
350: – in double room with private shower & toilet
500: – single room with private shower & toilet

Read more about our rental rules and how the notification works. Click here
Registration is done online as below link or by phone: 0471-50450 alt