Forever Fluid – The Strange Case of Renewable Limits

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This is an updated version of a draft for the introduction to my upcoming book: Forever Fluid – The Strange Case of Renewable Limits. © (Originally titled: ‘It Moves You Know’)
I consider it copyrighted, as I plan to publish it, or a version of it as part of the aforementioned book. That doesn’t mean you can’t link or do whatever. Just that you can’t do it commercially and that I’d prefer to know about it.

This book is dedicated to Galina V.W., who twice the mother, raised her grandson as lovingly as she raised her son.

The Case for Care

How does one begin to care about water?  Water being a thing generally only thought about when you’re thirsty or need a wash. How does one begin to care about something that just falls from the sky? Care enough to write a book on it?

Sometimes life’s projects spring out of nowhere. That is until you take the trouble to track ‘em back to their source.

This particular endeavor may have started when Doctor Walter (Pseudonym), my HS Earth Science teacher, mentioned that water might become an issue in coming decades.

That idea sat in the back of my mind for years. Dormant and drowned out by all the usual business and distraction of being a young man. It wasn’t til I stumbled upon Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge, nearly a decade later, that I was reminded of the reality of limited resources.

Consilience isn’t an environmental book. It’s more one of those intellectual adventures. The sort that scientists set out on when facing the seductively beckoning sea of life’s mysteries. Consilience is biologist E.O. Wilson’s ‘all-in-one’ foray into the history of philosophy and science. It’s a highlighting of how this history reveals an inherent overlap, or ‘jumping together’ of knowledge from various disciplines. One that occurs in concert with his own insightful musings, on how such consilience may soon more fully occur. Though I disagree with much found in its pages, I’d highly recommend it as a fascinating read.

The work’s pertinent part for this particular project came at the end of the book. Which at one point discusses the vast expenditures of energy and resources necessary to sustain life today. Discovering the sheer amount of water involved is what triggered the memory of old Doctor Walter’s cautioning.

This recall and its attendant realizations are the reason for why I learned to care about water and why I wish to impart that care to readers of this book.

Care is often stigmatized by the twin burdens of trouble and responsibility. Yet care can also be fascinating. It can in fact be a great deal of fun. It can animate certain dormant sensibilities, that nourish and revitalize the spirit, and lead you to myriad adventures and discoveries.

Another natural consequence of care is of course cultivation. Care leads to the cultivation of spiritual, intellectual, and physical powers. Powers that are indispensable in the most precious and precarious sort of cultivation. A cultivation called agriculture and industry. Twin disciplines upon which all of our lives depend and which are in turn wholly dependent on water.

There will be much on this in coming chapters. For now I ask that you be so kind as to humor my penchant for introspection.

Catalyst

Lord, how our information increaseth. (Keith Waldrop. Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy)

I like to introspect. I find it to be an excellent exercise for developing strong creative and critical thinking faculties. These skills have always been essential. Perhaps it is a mistake to say that they are needed now more than ever. But, I’m going to say it.

I’m saying it because although the world is as complicated as it always was, we are more complicated than we have ever been before. The machinery and administration of our societies is vast, labyrinthine, and interdependent. For these reasons, and perhaps ‘just because we can,’ we developed the ability to communicate instantly across oceans and continents. As a result information bombards us at an unprecedented rate.

Lord, how our information increaseth. Indeed.

Our familiar manner of relating to one another, of interacting with the environment, and the ‘qualia’ of our institutions have all undergone drastic changes.

All of these things call for well developed faculties. It will take strength, wit, compassion, and resolve to continuously thrive in a world of 7.6 billion people, large hadron colliders, and dead zones. It will take introspection.

This is why I weave psychological, philosophical, and sociological analysis into a basket, that would already be complete, even if assembled from the barest essentials of science and reporting.

I would not be able to practice such a delicate art. The art called ‘integrative analysis’ without a healthy dose of introspection.

‘Integrative analysis’ is the multifaceted discipline foreshadowed by the catalyst for this work: E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. It is consilience.

Nowhere is it more necessary than today’s interdependent, overlapping, high speed world. A world that produces words like Biogeochemical.

Biogeochemical should have been the watchword of the 20th century. The passage of chemicals between living things and the environment is a cycle that requires rapt attention. Perhaps if such attention was given there would have been yet more geniuses and poets. There is much to unpack in the latter statement. For the purpose of the introduction I will simply say: Preventing illness and death is why we must strive to make Biogeochemical the watchword of the 21st century.

The very nature of the word is multifaceted. It is a testament to the increasing complexity of living in a universe that is inherently, unfathomably intricate. It is why I practice and stress the need for developing a strong capacity for integrative analysis.

I think it worth mentioning that good analysis requires hard work and resolve. Neither hard work nor resolve are possible if you fall into the trendy nihilism that’s still somewhat in vogue. This nihilism has at its core a bizarre sort of overdeveloped minimalism. It is a bastardization of utilitarianism. One that has kept me, and I dare wager a good deal of others; from accessing the energy, resources, and will necessary to fight the good fight.

It is in the interest of providing an example of how this mindset plays out and is resolved that I offer the next passage. I do so in the hopes that it will produce more authors, more cultivators, more passion.

Fortuitous

It was recalling Doctor Walter’s words as I was reading Wilson’s work that led to this present volume.

This recall came at a fortuitous time. That is if you consider the creation of a book fortuitous. I was looking for something to do. I knew that I had to do something. I’d spent too much time looking and studying and not enough time doing. I weighed the merits of various enterprises and remembered that I’d always intended to write.

While, you’re welcome to disagree with my self-assessmsent. Writing is something I consider myself good at. Words and ideas come with ease and coherency. Something more the result of having a love of reading instilled in me early than any inherent braininess.

The fact that writing came naturally, the idea that books didn’t have utility in the same way an algorithm does, and the saturation of the writing market; are some of the reasons I viewed a writing career dimly.

I needed to get a ‘real job’ and build ‘real skills.’ Not do something that was ‘easy’ and fun. I bounced about from odd-job to odd-job, attempting to teach myself computer programming, because things have to have ‘utility’ you know.

Rediscovering the water issue was a fortuitous catalyst. It was an issue that my skill could shake a stick at. Even better it was an issue that had utility.

How does writing solve issues? Well, it doesn’t but it may help along the process. (The very fact that I feel the need to say this is testament to the trendy utilitarian nihilism mentioned last section.)

Part of solving a problem is having a good grasp of it and that only comes from thinking. Writing being formalized thinking seems perfect for the job. While I may not solve anything per se, I can serve as a signpost for professionals and laypeople alike.

The Flavor

Many readers pore through the introduction to see if a book is up their alley. They’re always trying to get a taste for the flavor of it. To see if they like it.

I’ll flat out save you the time and give you a taste.

It is true. Every book has a flavor. This book is no different. It will take you on a journey through the fascinating intersections defined by the axis resource known as water. It will be both a lesson and a story.

This is my first non-fiction book. It is narrative journalism. According to thebalance.com narrative journalism is:

“An immersive style of storytelling, narrative journalism is used to captivate readers by drawing them into a story with greater detail than is found in traditional news stories. It is a popular format for magazines such as the New Yorker and can difficult to define and write.”

I love stories, I love finding things out, and I dig a challenge. So this medium seems exactly up my alley.

I don’t think that any of the above traits are special. They’re up everybody’s alley. There’s a lot of joy to be had in reading a hard-won story about the real world. It’s a joy that’s on par with creating the story. One that I was delighted to experience as I did the background research necessary to launch this project.

The works of Alex Prud’ homme, Fred Pearce, and Jacques Leslie. Works like The Ripple Effect, When The Rivers Run Dry, and Deep Water are all superb examples of narrative journalism.

This book is written in a similar vein.

A Little Extra

Since the New Yorker was mentioned, I’d like to suggest that my readers whet their appetite for narrative journalism, by reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann. It is free to access on their website.

The spirit of exploration is one that I’ve always held in high regard. A flame that needs stoking, in a world that believes it’s been mapped and mounted, like some hapless gossamer butterfly in a Victorian collection.

It is in the interest of rekindling such time-honored passions, that I began writing a jungle adventure inspired by all the Doyle, Crichton, and Lovecraft I pored over in my adolescence. (Of course Alan Watts and Terrence McKenna played a role as well.) Researching for The Sketch of Sam Monroe (estimated completion: 1st Quarter, 2019 ) led me to Grann’s article. It is a worthy read.

If you dig jungle books, and aren’t too uncomfortable with salty language, and psychedelic silliness, please check out the intro and first couple of chapters on my website: fractaljournal.com.

I believe that jungles are useful metaphors for getting to grips with things and for kindling the spirit of exploration.

Getting a grip on the water issue is a jungle in its own right.

Time to set up base-camp!


© [Alexander V. Weir] and [fractaljournal.com], [2017]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Alexander V. Weir] and [fractaljournal.com] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Audity Podcast # 4 – Talking Water, Terrible Angles, and some Music

Water ROI – Psychology, Environment, and Technology (PET)

Image result for efficient water industry

This article is part four of a series.

There is a dangerous delusion in the developed world. It is the delusion that we’ve engineered ourselves out of need. Technology seems to bolster recklessness. When you’re several generations removed from thirst and hunger you tend to believe in endless bounty.

The problem with this blissful nostrum is that there is no such thing as endless bounty. Though we are adept at overcoming limits we are still defined by limits. Perhaps our de facto faith in invincibility is due to the boundary breaking nature of our ingenuity.

This is not a Luddite screed. In fact I feel that technology is as natural and necessary as a meadow of lilacs. However not everything natural is good and lilacs are prone to wilting. Lilacs also grow out of the soil which is in essence a vast graveyard of former lilacs and assorted critters. Technology may be as captivating and integral to life as a lilac field, but the boundaries that were broken, sprang out of beds of deadly error and arduous strain.

Every modern marvel that helps us forget the perilous business of being a creature on earth was hard-won. Take the case of Newtown Creek which is a textbook example of a phenomenon known as ‘Legacy Pollution.’

As the United States and countries the world over were industrializing they were undergoing an unprecedented process. Unprecedented processes have by their very nature unforseen consequences. One unforseen consequence in Newtown Creek was the contamination of the surrounding watershed with various industrial solvents. Solvents that at the time weren’t yet known to be as catastrophic for life as they are. Solvents that cause exotic cancers and environmental degradation . Solvents that are the legacy of early industrialization. Hence the name ‘Legacy Pollutants.’

We still have a problem with pollution and environmental degradation. It is less severe and thus less noticeable. It is something that most of us only take note of when something like the Flint, Michigan event occurs. Though in a way the possibility of taking our resources and technologies for granted is arguably an impressive hallmark of our success, we must never forget that it is a delusion.

We must never forget that it is a delusion because like all delusions it is inherently dangerous. When we forget all the effort that went into maintaining the sanitation, food supply, and luxury that we currently enjoy we are in danger of ‘prosethetic addiction.’

A prosthetic is in this case a technological solution to an environmental issue. Not a bad thing in and of itself. The problem enters in when we get ‘prosthetic addiction’ which is something that is akin to constantly patching a leaky boat with ever dwindling amounts of plaster rather than taking the thing to a dry-dock. ‘Prosthetic Addiciton’ occurs when we think that solutions to pressing problems are quick and easy.

It is the result of a glib acquaintance with history. When you have the luxury of sitting in class to learn about history centuries can become sentences. A paragraph on legacy pollution (something that’s not common core AFAIK) will be a fleeting firing of neurons.

It’s just a few sentences. It’s hard to feel the health lost, the rivers destroyed, and the untold amount of energy that went into damage control in just a few sentences. Even if you do feel it, the feeling soon passes to be replaced by the immediacy of living.

You think about your job, your family, your friends, whether or not you’ll get to play pool Monday night, or if the cute brunette is single. These sorts of thoughts like hunger come unbidden. They are an inescapable part of the bric-a-brac of being human. No one should ever be shamed for them.

Though it may not be shameful to have a glib impression of history, to assume that Elon Musk et al will solve our problems, it is the nonetheless harmful. We should strive to overcome it. We should strive to be informed and aware of the things like water that we all depend upon. We should not outsource these things whole-sale to ‘experts.’

Historical glibness and hero leaning are the chief pillars of ‘prosthetic addiction.’ The cure to the addiction is ever greater attention from ever greater numbers of people. An attention that especially in the democratic republic that is the United States should be vigorously promoted as an implied duty of citizenship.

The first step to dispelling the illusion that all is more or less well, and that the answers to the few problems that remain are just around the corner, is to get some perspective on the limits of resources and good ol’ yankee ingenuity.

The focus in this series is water. Water is a renewable resource. One whose bounty is often overstated. It falls from the sky, sits in vast reserves beneath our feet, and takes up most of the surface of the earth. Why worry?

Well, for one only 3% of the water on earth is fresh and an even smaller percentage of that is readily accessible. Interestingly this comparatively miniscule amount of available water is still large enough to leave us with the aforementioned delusions.

Delusions that become more and more dangerous, as there are more and more people, using more and more resources.

I am a staunch anti-Malthusian. I do not subscribe to misanthropy or the notion that it is impossible for large populations to live well. I do however firmly believe that as more people and industrialization require more resources we must pay more attention to resource use.

That small precious supply of available freshwater that we have, may be renewabl, but is certainly not infinite. If we squander and pollute it the amount of energy and resources that we will have to expend, to do damage control, will have a vast ripple effect in everything from economy to agriculture.

This is not to mention the health and life of people and animals that will be lost from thirst and disease.

A huge cataclysmic environmental catastrophe on a global scale isn’t likely. The very idea itself reeks of the sort of alarmism that turns people off of environmental issues. It is not what concerns me.

What concerns me is lots of little disasters especially ones that are avoidable. Such small disasters like the Newtown Creek incidence alluded to earlier can in aggregate lead to quite a pickle. From conflict over water rights to higher food prices the cost of ignoring these ‘paper-cuts’ can become exorbitant.

As I pointed out in the last article it is fortunate that our steps towards a more efficient use of water seem to have been rewarded. Despite population growth since the eighties our water use has more or less stayed the same.

This happy news is due to advance in technologies and best-practice strategies. Though these technologies and practices have been efficacious we can and must do better.

Needs and populations are increasing and what is adequate now will not be adequate later.

While the technologies and practices currently employed are wonderful they are rather pedestrian fixes.

Many of these fixes have hidden costs. As with all worthy pursuits and processes there are no easy answers. Reviewing water efficiency progress is the best cure for ‘prosthetic addiction’ and its attendant delusions.

Some of the fixes are as dull as making pipes and containers less prone to leaking. Others are as common sense as reusing water for industrial purposes. (http://www.twdb.texas.gov/publications/brochures/conservation/doc/Industrialbrochure-final.pdf)

I am still researching and am sure that I’ll find more interesting examples and stories of responsible water use but I doubt that they’re going to be too terribly exciting. The fact that I have to overcome what I call the ‘boredom barrier,’ doesn’t mean that these aren’t vital pursuits; but does help to highlight why we have difficulty paying sustained attention to ‘mundane’ issues, no matter how important they are.

We may have come a long way since the 80’s but Las Vegas is a city in the desert. The water for this Oasis like many similar southwestern cities has to come from somewhere. This use-case has a litany of side effects that are economic, agricultural, and political.

Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done.

ROI – The Water We Spend

Aerial photo of Beaver Valley Power Station in Pennsylvania, showing evaporation from the large cooling towers.
This article is part three of a series.

“People don’t have any idea that when they flip their light switches on or their air conditioner, there’s huge amounts of water involved,” said Neil Carman, director of the clean air program for the Texas Chapter of the Sierra Club.


Water is behind absolutely everything we do. Let’s begin this story back home. How does our domestic water use break down?

Pie chart of our water use

According to the EPA the average family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day. If you look at the pie chart above (which comes from their website) you can see that we use this water for worthy goals.

Sanitation cannot be overstated. It is what makes life bearable. As such I deem this to be a good ROI for water spending. Though I would stress that we must strive to carry out these use-cases more efficiently.

Efficient use of resources at home is laudable. But we shouldn’t sink into the comforting fantasy that small changes at home will make a big difference for water conservation. The illusion of control that we get from being ‘good people’ is, like most illusions, detrimental.

Even if everybody followed the most stringent conservatism in their domestic water use it wouldn’t begin to make a dent in our ‘water debt’ (To be explained). This is because the biggest water hogs are irrigation and Thermoelectric power.

US Freshwater Withdrawals Chart

As you can see from the above graph almost half of all freshwater withdrawals in 2010 were for Thermoelectric power. Irrigation is the second largest water hog at 32%.

Power and food are essentials. It is a good return on investment to spend water on these things. As with domestic use we must be more efficient here. The efficiencies that we improve in these two areas will have a far greater impact on making sure that we have plenty of fresh water available for the future.

The good news is that we do seem to have had a positive impact on water use.

Bar showing showing trends in fresh surface-water use, 1950 to 2010

What the above graph tells us is that there is a relationship between water use and population.

According to this graph water use peaked in 1980. It has since that time remained more or less steady. Though population growth continued along with a greater need for irrigation and industry, total water use has not risen. This seems to suggest that we’ve become more efficient at using water.

While I don’t doubt that greater efficiency in water use has contributed to this pleasant steadiness, I can’t help but think that offshoring a good chunk of our industry may also play a role. (As of the writing of this article I don’t have the exact data but I feel the possibility is worth mentioning.)

Now that you have some idea as to how we use water it’s time to get a bit more in-depth. The next article in this series will delve into the technologies and practices that have allowed us to get more out of water since the 1980’s.


Sources

Applying ‘ROI Thinking’ to Environmental Questions

Image result for the atchafalaya basin


This mini-article could have also been called:

‘Why I Apply ROI Thinking to Environmental Questions’

But it looked awkward in the title bar so I opted for what you see there up top.

So, why apply ‘ROI Thinking’ to environmental questions? Well…

Bottom Line: Money represents resources. If we can use ROI to talk about finance which is a roundabout way of talking resources then we can use it to talk about resources.

So, what is ROI?

It’s a business term that means ‘Return on Investment.’

For the Pedantic:

“Return on investment, or ROI, is the most common profitability ratio. There are several ways to determine ROI, but the most frequently used method is to divide net profit by total assets. So if your net profit is $100,000 and your total assets are $300,000, your ROI would be .33 or 33 percent.”

-Return on Investment(ROI) – Entrepreneur https://www.entrepreneur.com/encyclopedia/return-on-investment-roi

This acronym is useful not just for business but pretty much for everything.

What is it that you get out of the work and resources that you put in?

Some may think this a cynical way of looking at things.

But that’s not an accurate interpretation.

ROI has nothing to do with generosity or stinginess it has everything to do with economy.

If you expend all your energy and resources on something then you may not have that energy and those resources for something more vital.

This is why it is vastly important to pay attention to your return on investment.

So what are some resources that we should be careful with.

Let’s start with the general and important ones:

Time, material, and health.

If you spend all your time with one job or friend then you won’t have any for another.

If you eat all your food and don’t have money then you’re gonna be hungry.

If you ignore your health by sleeping only a couple of hours a night to do XYZ then you won’t be doing XYZ for very long.

This is why you need to pay attention to ROI. Which I will now just call Roy.

Roy is easy to understand but difficult to apply.

Like lots of business terms Roy is basically formal wear for simple ideas.

Roy is about getting as much bang for your buck as possible.

The issue that I’m using Roy to evaluate is an environmental one.

I’m trying to figure out better ways of utilizing the vital resource known as water.

By figuring out I mean describing the problems surrounding water by listening to scientists, journalists, and other professionals and then relaying that information through this journal and coming up with my own ideas.

I’m hoping that in so doing I learn a lot and am able to provide an accurate picture of water issues and possible solutions.

I think that a good place to start is Roy. What are we getting out of the water we spend?

Or it’s counter: what are we losing by spending water in the ways we are now?

‘What are we getting out of the water we spend’ and ‘what are we losing by spending water’ will be the subjects of the next two nonfiction essays in this journal.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned.

ROI Today – Are we productive?

Image result for commute

Take cars, for example. It takes 75,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of steel. Since the average car contains about 2,150 pounds of steel, that means over 80,000 gallons of water is needed to produce the finished steel for one car.


An issue that I will be tackling in upcoming weeks is the amount of resources we spend versus what we produce.

I have had a recurring thought on many a commute that the ratio of products and services rendered versus the cost of production is wildly askew.

Many if not most people drive two tons of steel to and from work  a day. You don’t have to even take carbon into consideration to see why this is potentially wasteful from an ROI standpoint.

First there is the metal itself, then there is the time in production and maintenance, then there is the cost of the fuel. Then there are hidden costs such as the 80,000 gallons of water it takes to produce a car.

Understanding how to balance the ratio of resource use and productivity requires abstaining from finger-pointing and taking a long hard look at what’s actually happening.

My goal is to find out how to produce more than we consume.


Here are some links that can provide insights into the scale of consumption for one very vital resource called water.