Earth, Air, Water and Fire
“We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”
- Buckminster Fuller
One of the most profound discoveries I have made in my entire life is the benefits of holistic thinking. Looking at the history of medicine in the Western world we can truly see that it has been a long path to acceptance of an approach to health and well being that has been a tradition for centuries in Eastern medicine. If we look at the human body and it's basic makeup we are familiar with behavior for example that recommends treating acne with creams or radiation rather than diet or lifestyle.
Looking at the big picture and preparing the body to harmonize with the external factors such as the environment, the food habits, the sleep habits, cleanliness etc. are more of an Eastern way of viewing traditional medicine. This is just one example of a microcosm of our body within a macrocosm being Earth. Let’s consider a larger microcosm/macrocosm relationship.
The Earth's Amazing Balancing Act
Here's a thought exercise to make a rather startling point. These questions should get you thinking. What do you think the chances are of us ever discovering life in our galaxy outside of Earth? During the lifetime of Earth's existence could life forms have been born and died somewhere in our own solar system? What factors gives Earth its unique advantage to be able to sustain life? Considering that we have not discovered life does that indicate that the conditions need to be just right to enable life? Does it not make sense that we have been very lucky to have reached these conditions and that it is quite possible that we could join the the other lifeless planets if something were to threaten the balance?
We know Mars once had an atmosphere and magnetic field. The theory goes that millions of years ago meteors knocked out the magnetic field and solar radiation burned up the planet.
But something keeps the balance on Earth. There has been a naturally occurring series of nuclear reactions deep down that keep Earth's core hot and in a constant state of flux that manages to keep our magnetic field active. Our magnetic field protects our planet from solar radiation.
We have been disturbing the balance of nature for too long. If we are to learn about how to apply the same thinking to the planet we need to look at equilibrium, balance if you will, the microcosm within the macrocosm. For our purposes we'll stick to the Greek view of four elements rather than the Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water.) The natural elements Earth, Air, Water and Fire, as the ancient Greeks called them, still serve as a way to simplify and gain a broad perspective.
Buckminster Fuller in the quote above suggests that humans are piloting Earth and we can somehow determine the path or outcome. Cooperating in a unified manner fully aware of the goal and recognizing we all have a role to play is the only way to navigate Earth back to safety. Finding the harmony may not be possible without drastic measures.
The earliest humans lived without the knowledge of Fire. Long before Fire, our more distant ancestors depended on the elements Earth, Air and Water and we're happy without the knowledge of Fire. But when Fire was discovered it became such a valuable tool that a lot changed in profound ways. Cooking, processing steel and heating all contributed to improved lives and it genetically enhanced humans due to the better nutrition and health obtained from the cooking process. The handling of fire would take many thousands of years before it would become a threat to our overall existence.
Burning coal for electricity and burning gasoline and diesel for cars now have new meaning in this modern era. What was once considered sustainable can no longer be taken for granted. Our growing population and our rate of consumption is offsetting Earth's balance.
Once our electricity supply became so reliable and commonplace nobody imagined it would be putting a strain on our environment. It was never a question in peoples minds. The engineers did a good job of meeting a steady growing demand. This “out of sight out of mind” phenomenon decades later was going to come back to haunt us.
Of course we no longer think of Earth as an element but we know a surprising amount about how the planet’s well being is dependent on what goes on below the surface. Molten rock keeps coming to the surface of our 4.5 billion year old planet as volcanic eruptions. But why did the centre never cool? I first came across the following explanation in a book called Terrestrial Energy. It explains that radioactive decay of uranium and radium causes enough heat to melt the rock. Our planet being larger than Mars may explain the reason we have maintained a magnetic field without which we'd have no atmosphere. The steel alloys in the Earth have become magnetized by convection currents. The magnetic field shields Earth from solar radiation and that allows us to keep our atmosphere. But somehow our planet has less violent storms than other planets, more moderate temperature extremes and a greater abundance of water which all seem naturally balanced in quantity and strength.
Now I hope you see these facts as amazing. Our unique status as the only known planet with life does indicate that we have just the right ingredients in the right balance to sustain life. If the margin for error for attaining that perfect mix of oxygen, temperature, weather were very wide then we would have observed life elsewhere by now.
Consider that life thrives on Earth. It makes this seemingly accidental fine-tuned system seem even more amazing when you also consider that Earth has two naturally occurring, walk away, passively safe systems in place to protect us from harm. (I am deliberately using jargon here that gets used to describe nuclear reactors) First, the atmosphere protects us from objects entering our world by causing burn up in the atmosphere before hitting the surface. If it were not full of oxygen the objects would crash and destroy whatever lie in its path. Second, the magnetic field deflects solar radiation that would strip our planet of life and its atmosphere. What we call the solar winds are prevented from heating our atmosphere and slowly eroding it away. We should be thankful for this natural equilibrium. But what would it take to knock it off balance? Can we gamble with our future? I have heard from experts that the chance of true catastrophic climate change is about 10%. That’s a forever event. Does it make sense to ignore the solutions?
It is hard not to mention James Lovelock when discussing Earth. The scientist, inventor, environmentalist who predicted serious setbacks in the “Revenge of Gaia” later changed his mind about the severity of his first books predictions of severe devastation. At 97 years of age he says it makes more sense to engineer cities to manage the air locally and that trying to fix the planet is just too difficult. His view is an extreme view. However he also supports nuclear energy.
The idea of not interfering with nature has had a resurgence with an interesting document titled “The Ecomodernist Manifesto.” which suggests we should not return to a low tech society dependent on farming and a more simple life but quite the opposite.
Technology can solve many problems and that cities are better ways to organize humans. Again Lovelock uses the examples of ants and bees as understanding how to organize to survive. The hives evolved out of necessity.
An Ecomodernist Manifesto speaks about “decoupling” from nature. The goal we must focus on is using technology to avoid harming nature. Cities are ideal for that.
“...we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”
Examples of practical uses of technology are vertical farming. Dickson Despommier sees vertical farms as environmentally sound and would allow more manageable controlled conditions for growing food and prevent overusing land that will become more scarce with expanding populations.
Plantagon is a living example of the vertical farm concept in Linköping Sweden. To quote the “About” page from Plantagon website:
“Plantagon International is the global innovation leader in the sector urban agriculture. Plantagon’s resilient food systems minimize the need for land, water, energy and pesticides. The environmental impact is very low, and if the products are delivered directly to consumers in the city, the transportation costs are also minimized.
The Plantagon concept is simple and appealing: fresh, local vegetables delivered daily directly to consumers. No middle hands, no yesterday’s food.”
We have learned to live with self abuse as a species. Polluted air has been threatening lives from the first locomotives and steamships followed by the first coal plant designed by Edison. The direct current (D.C.) coal fired plant in New York city in 1882 was designed to handle street lamps.
When the first alternating current (A.C.) plant was developed by Tesla for the Niagara Falls hydro plant in 1885 A.C. was a more efficient long distance carrier of electricity and it started to spread more rapidly. But hydro power would prove to be a superior method to getting electricity than coal.
With expansion of hydro worldwide we have come full circle and witnessed that we have out paced ourselves and started to see a decline in available waterways. Dams in the US are drying up. The suitable water sources and land formations that could exploit hydroelectric power have already been used up. But hydro is the real success story of the renewable energy sources despite it being limited by topography and weather patterns. Our air has been spared significantly for the number of coal plants their energy has prevented.
The Out of Control Smog Event of 1953 in London.
The idea that coal kills is understood yet the degree and scope of what specific lives are being threatened is not widely understood. The emissions of mercury and sulphur dioxide plus soot (particulate matter) and nitrous oxide (ozone) are the worst contributing pollutants. But coal was out of control in London of 1953:
“...smog begins to hover over London, England, ... in 1952. It persists for four days, leading to the deaths of at least 4,000 people.
It was a Thursday afternoon when a high-pressure air mass stalled over the Thames River Valley. When cold air arrived suddenly from the west, the air over London became trapped in place. The problem was exacerbated by low temperatures, which caused residents to burn extra coal in their furnaces. The smoke, soot and sulfur dioxide from the area’s industries along with that from cars and consumer energy usage caused extraordinarily heavy smog to smother the city. By the morning of December 5, there was a visible pall cast over hundreds of square miles.
The smog became so thick and dense that by December 7 there was virtually no sunlight and visibility was reduced to five yards in many places. Eventually, all transportation in the region was halted, but not before the smog caused several rail accidents, including a collision between two trains near London Bridge. The worst effect of the smog, however, was the respiratory distress it caused in humans and animals, including difficulty breathing and the vomiting of phlegm. One of the first noted victims was a prize cow that suffocated on December 5. An unusually high number of people in the area, numbering in the thousands, died in their sleep that weekend.
It is difficult to calculate exactly how many deaths and injuries were caused by the smog. As with heat waves, experts compare death totals during the smog to the number of people who have died during the same period in previous years. The period between December 4 and December 8 saw such a marked increase in death in the London metropolitan area that the most conservative estimates place the death toll at 4,000, with some estimating that the smog killed as many as 8,000 people.
On December 9, the smog finally blew away. In the aftermath of this incident, the British government passed more stringent regulations on air pollution and encouraged people to stop using coal to heat their homes. Despite these measures, a similar smog 10 years later killed approximately 100 Londoners.”
Some will remain skeptical about CO2 affecting climate but it would benefit us all, whether a catastrophe happens or not, fixing the air and the water in order to save species extinctions and give us back the quality of life we once had and were able to reach much easier.
Pollutants from Coal Plants
A coal plant emits on average 3.5 million tons of Carbon Dioxide per year. Airborne particles from coal plants have harsh substances that are poisonous such as mercury, arsenic and even uranium. It is estimated pollution from coal causes one million deaths a year worldwide, about 24,000 a year in the US.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) becomes acid rain damaging crops, forests, soils, lakes and streams. Average coal plant 7,000 to 14,000 tons of SO2 a year. Nitrogen oxides (also called nitrous oxide or ozone - NOx): NOx pollution causes ground level ozone, or smog, which can burn lung tissue, exacerbate asthma, and make people more susceptible to chronic respiratory diseases. The average coal plant produces 3,300 - 10,300 tons of NOx per year.
Particulate matter can cause chronic bronchitis, aggravated asthma, and premature death. Average plant emits 500 tons of small airborne particles each year. Baghouses installed inside coal plant smokestacks can capture much of the particulates.
Coal plants are responsible for more than half of the U.S. human-caused emissions of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that causes brain damage and heart problems. Just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury deposited on a 25-acre lake can make the fish unsafe to eat. Average coal uncontrolled plant emits 170 pounds of mercury each year. Activated carbon injection (ACI) technology can reduce mercury emissions by up to 90 percent when combined with baghouses. A baghouse is a type of filtering technology designed to remove most of the part ↕️icles emitted from coal burning. It is costly and the law does not require it. ACI technology is currently found on just 8 percent of the U.S. coal fleet. There is also Pacific Northwest National Labs developing several technologies that look promising for dealing with CO2 and specifically toxic mercury using a method they call SAMMS (Self Assembled Monolayers on Mesoporous Supports.)
Uncontrolled coal plants emit:
114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.
720 tons of carbon monoxide, which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart disease.
220 tons of hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOC), which form ozone.
225 pounds of arsenic, which will cause cancer in one out of 100 people who drink water containing 50 parts per billion.
We recently past the 400 parts per million (ppm) of point of carbon dioxide. James Hansen has estimated that we need to return to a balance of 350 ppm to live sustainably.
Water and The Twin Tragedy of Climate Change - Ocean Acidity
When we say climate change we need to understand that it also has a twin and that is ocean acidity. High carbonic acid levels (also from the CO2 from coal plants) are killing off the pteropods that are vital for the food chain which if they disappear and go extinct would have a devastating effect on other dependent creatures.(See chapter eleven on ocean acidity.)
So why do we let the oceans become less and less inhabitable? Fish in some regions are being banned for their mercury content caused by coal emissions.
What seems pretty evident about human nature is that if we can’t see it, feel it or smell it, that we tend to ignore it. This is evident by our lack of treatment of sewage. In Canada we have 400 cities and towns* that dump their sewage directly into the local lakes, oceans and rivers. People just flush the toilet and forget about it.
That needs to change.
In an article on the Global News website dated May 13, 2013 it says:
“Last year, Environment Canada announced new federal regulations that say primary treatment plants don’t cut it anymore. Now, cities must use secondary wastewater treatment or better to remove bacteria and other things that have dissolved in our wastewater. Similar wastewater standards have been in place in the U.S. for almost 40 years...”
“...Cities across Canada have been given a deadline of 2040 to upgrade their plants, but many are left wondering how they will pay for costly upgrades required to meet the new standards.”
This kind of lenience is a sign of the times. The sense of urgency about stopping the abuse of the land, water and air is too slack.
One recommended treatment is a small reactor that handles waste and gives electricity to the grid. There are two ways a reactor can assist. One is the process heat from a small modular reactor and the other is using Cesium to irradiate the sludge that can be used in agriculture.
Fire is known to have been commonly used as recent as 400,000 years ago. The marvels that were accomplished and the tragedies that fell are numerous and not the goal of this chapter to discuss. But as technology advanced skipping ahead several hundreds of millenia fire became replaced by electric stoves and microwave ovens. Such possessions became commonplace to people of the affluent nations. Meanwhile the overpopulated poor in countries such as India are scrambling for cheap energy based on fire by burning dung and scraps of wood when their income status gives them little choice. How many die a year from indoor fumes?
Now there are 7.3 billion people with most countries knowing that fire and nuclear power are common ways to get power yet many of their people are without electricity. It has been estimated that with the current rates of production that Earth is over-populated by 5 billion people.
Mathematically the maximum sustainable population if resources were used properly would be 4.1 billion which suggests we have gone past the emergency levels by 3 billion people. Africa (1.1 billion), India (1.2 billion) and China (1.3 billion) all have populations adding up to about half of the world’s people. While the west’s standard of living lowers and the disappearing middle class seems to be evident, the east is beginning to prosper. We are seeing their poverty quickly being replaced by a working class and examples of wealthy business owners in communist China. But progress has its challenges. In China where prosperity is growing the fastest, coal plants are being built at a rate of one coal plant per week causing serious health issues and deaths. Meanwhile CO2 is causing global warming and a serious pH imbalance in the oceans. India is slower moving toward prosperity with the top 10% holding 75% of the wealth. But the United States has a similar distribution of wealth the top 10% hold 65% of the wealth but the extremes are greater in India since their highest 10% holds 370 times as much as the lowest 10% whereas in the United States that separation is much lower roughly 12 times. So clearly India has a much bigger problem enabling their masses to rise out of poverty.
There is a way to answer our problems that makes sense in a world gone out of control. The answer lies in the form of an emissions-free, abundant, responsible and practical energy choice, nuclear energy. Our group has paid special attention to molten salt reactors or MSRs (more later) which had their introduction back in the late 1950s and went through several stages of prototypes at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under the leadership of Alvin Weinberg.
But the promise of the atomic age has been slow(See YouTube video A is for Atom.) Nuclear energy can do a lot. With enough nuclear plants we can clean up the air, the oceans, the abuses to the land (whether it be the destruction of habitats from mining, methane release from fracking or steel monstrosities erecting wind "turbines" or habitat destruction by solar farms), improve education, lower populations and eliminate poverty.
The New Fire
There are many misconceptions about nuclear energy. Some anti-nuclear people want to blame science, painting it as evil for creating nuclear energy that in their narrow view can explode like a weapon. Just because we can create nuclear weapons using our knowledge of nuclear forces does not mean that nuclear power plants can explode. We return to this in Chapter 4.
Tracing the origins of the universe we now know that nuclear forces existed billions of years ago before the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago. The elements we are made of were born in those early stellar explosions. Radiation was born long ago along with the big bang, at the beginning of this universe, and it is still all around us. What we call background radiation comes both from the skies and the ground which was born long before the birth of our planet.
Recently it was announced that natural gas just passed coal as the biggest provider of electricity in the USA: 33% natural gas, 31% coal, 19% nuclear and 13  % non-hydro renewables
Nuclear fission as an energy source has had a slow start since the technology first arrived. The excitement over nuclear energy precedes WWII. There was hope that an atomic age would provide limitless power and therefore comforts and wealth.
For example, the reality of science explains that nuclear energy is an abundant and carbon free energy source that outperforms all other energy sources per unit of fuel and longevity. It has many other advantages we will look at. We will show that the obstacle for acceptance of nuclear is a matter of education. If you are skeptic suspend your disbelief until later.
There are 20,000,000 lives saved per year saved by using medical procedures that use radiation. There has been 1.8 million lives saved because of the zero emission nuclear plants that replace carbon dioxide and other pollutants from dirty coal plants and James Hanson predicts 7,000,000 by 2050 if we replace carbon emitting power plants with nuclear power.
The reality of science explains that nuclear energy is an abundant and carbon free energy source that outperforms other energy sources per unit of fuel. It has many other advantages we will look at. We will show that the obstacle for acceptance of nuclear is a matter of education.
Unlike what most people think nuclear energy is not closely related to the production nuclear bombs and people falsely imagine mysterious radiation to be threatening our existence. The only thing in common between nuclear plants, nuclear bombs and nuclear medicine is the science of atoms but all three are totally separate fields and disciplines. See Chapter xx for more details. Throughout the book we will return to discuss whether fear of all things nuclear are justified.
Fear of phantoms, ghosts, shadows all have to do with fear of the unknown. The truth is that radiation is a fundamental necessity to keeping our planet alive. The film called Independence Day had the aliens defeated because their immune systems were not designed to handle Earth viruses. We have plenty of invisible activities occurring in our bodies every second. We are equipped to deal with a lot of tiny invasions on our cells. One of the ways our body defenses works is DNA repair and surprisingly it is chemical activity that does the most damage. Radiation will also damage DNA but it happens to a much lesser degree. Read Chapter 45 to read about the wonders of radiation.
Canada is full of crap: When it comes to sewage, many places aren't as pretty as they seem
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey by William Tucker
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