Two Ecosystems

When a tree dies, its body is converted into nutrients for the tree that replaces it, as other organisms extract the energy of the sun from the carcass of that tree.

When a human built building is exhausted, humans must use the energy of fossilized carbon to tear it down and cart it off, and then the remains of that once admired structure lies in a pile ofwaste, the energy committed to it eternally dissipated.

Each time a plant captures a photon, a creature eats that plant, another creature eats the first, they die, and other smaller creatures extract the energy and nutrients of their bodies, the energy of the sun passes through them, as they sustain and rebuild each other, eternally resisting the effects of entropy.

When entropy makes a pothole, when hurricane winds tear the rooves off of houses, or topple electrical poles, when a heavy rain raises a river and the river washes away a road or buildings, when a car grows old and fails, when an oil pipeline breaks and spills its cargo across prairies, forests, rivers or oceans, when entropy besets any human made thing, humans cannot wait for it to grow back - it is a dead thing - so to build back what was, people turn to the energy source they know and control: fossilized carbon, oil, coal, & gas.

The bodies of these things do not spontaneously convert to the nutrients and substances of which other things are made: they must be "recycled". In nature, energy is released in the process of decomposition. In the fossil carbon ecosystem, energy is required to make concrete, and again to convert old concrete into new concrete, to drill for oil and then to clean the river into which oil was spilt, to build the road and again to repair the pothole, to build the electrical and telephone grid, and then to re-erect the poles onto which new wires must be thread, to make a car and to replace the car, that burns fossil-carbon, to make plastic and to convert old plastic into new plastic.

And none of them would have been built in the first place, had not fossil-carbon been extracted from the ground. Is it any wonder the landscape of human made things in modern America is so ugly? So artificial? After all, it is made of dead things. What is added to beautify? Living things: trees and grass. But the things made by humans are dead, and quickly killing Gaia.

There are two “ecosystems” on our planet. That powered by the sun, and that powered by the stored energy of fossilized carbon. The first has evolved, emerged, over the four and one half billion year history of Earth, while the second has fluoresced in the mere centuries since humans began to burn coal. The first is assembled on the fundament of rocks, water and light, into the vast, self perpetuating, virtually eternal, web of life. The second is built on, made from, and takes as its fundament, the web of life, and the products of millions and billions of years of geological activity-oil, coal, metal ores, and vast basins of lithium – which once used and dispersed through the engine of wealth creation, cannot be replaced – and assembles these extractions into buildings, roads, war machines, wires, towers, oil tankers, oil fields, vast districts of vertical concrete and glass blocks. Things that do not restore themselves. The first perpetuates itself through intimate interconnections and accommodations between the uncountable species, habitats, lands, waters and airs of Earth, thriving without instructions or conscious intercession, on the continuous flux of the sun's energy, while the second perpetuates itself by consuming, degrading, or even killing, the living things and the living systems of the first, under the conscious planning and intervention of people whose goal is to accumulate the mere symbols and effects of status and power, a substance so abstract that it relies on the consent of the social web of their species, just to exist. The former relies on a principle - Natural Selection- which selects for the survival of the entire web of organisms. The latter relies on a principle – aggrandizement – which selects for the most “profitable” not to the entire system, but to the few who operate it. Which turns out also to be the most disruptive and destructive use of its fundament.

Further, the operative distinction between them is that living organisms have a constrained stream of energy and matter, in the form of other living bodies they must eat, while the human social constructs which extract matter and energy from the earth via the fossil-carbon ecosystem, have a super abundant, exo-somatic, unconstrained energy stream, in the form of the fossil carbon, which it can use to fuel unconstrained exo-somatic tools. Thus, while an ordinary solar organism must use its own body and the meager supply of energy it can acquire from other solar bodies, the fossil-carbon organism can “eat” the vast reserves of solar energy that geological time has sequestered, in the short term advantaging that fossil-carbon organism over the solar organism, rendering short term advantage (profit in power and status) to the few humans who operate the fossil-carbon exo-somatic tools, while the solar organisms are driven from their habitats, driven to extinction, and caused to suffer as toxins and plastics poison them and block the passage of real food. For the brief span of time that fossil-carbon is available.

All on the backs of countless human beings whose bodies and lives are mined for their health.

Thus, if humanity is a form of life emergent from the solar ecosystem, and it has for centuries practiced this form of self-aggrandizement without the fossil carbon energy supplies we have today, there is no way to predict for how long humanity might have continued slowly advancing its technology, building up its populations, slowly cutting down forests, fishing out the oceans using natural cotton thread in its nets, and continued in its incessant parade of war, death and mayhem, without that source of energy, and no way to predict whether humanity might have someday killed Gaia anyway, or ever discovered the principle of self-restraint. But with fossil carbon energy, a human trait that might have been constrained within the solar ecosystem, has become unconstrained, and the sole strategy of survival for life and humanity, is self-restraint.

Thus while natural selection guides the evolution of the solar-powered ecosystem, simply in answer to the question "What designs self perpetuate?", human selection guides the evolution of the fossil carbon ecosystem in answer to the question "What designs will bring me status and power?". (Imagine a world in which every economic decision was bracketed by the question "What sustains the fabric of life?") Some will argue that humans, the engineers and operators of that second “ecosystem”, are themselves products of the first, and therefore anything they operate shall be “of” it, devoid of any moral culpability. But this is a convenient rhetorical device for people who are unwilling to acknowledge that the second might be, in any way, constrained by the needs of the first, who claim that their fossilized-carbon powered ecosystem can grow forever, who seem to not think that future generations have any claim to the resources of today. They are people who do not know how to share, with others of us, with future generations, or with the living system of Earth. At an abstract level, ignoring exigent details, it’s true. Humanity is a realization of that solar powered ecosystem. But to say that the economic system that humanity has built is somehow indistinct from the solar powered ecosystem from which humanity arose, overlooks critical details.

Some will argue that humans, the engineers and operators of that second “ecosystem”, are themselves products of the first, and therefore anything they operate shall be of it. It is a convenient rhetorical device for people who are unwilling to acknowledge that the second can in any way be limited by the first, who claim that their fossilized-carbon powered ecosystem can grow forever. At a theoretical level, ignoring exigent details, it’s true. Humanity is a realization of that solar powered ecosystem. But to say that the economic system that humanity has built, supporting, with the unsustainable extraction of fossil-carbon and minerals, vastly more humans than the solar ecosystem might have, is somehow indistinct from the solar powered ecosystem from which humanity arose, overlooks critical details.

First among them that, aside from this sophistry, there are two ecosystems. There is that which is solar powered and capable, on its own, without any human management, of sustaining life indefinitely into the future (a future that is potentially longer than the Earth has existed). Then there is that which is powered by fossil carbon fuels (sometimes characterized as “exo-somatic energy”), built by human ingenuity, and materialized through the death and destruction of living things, living systems, and the materials of the Earth itself, which far from sustaining itself indefinitely, will very soon exhaust what remains of the solar powered ecosystem. Here then is where the fossil energy ecosystem and the solar ecosystem connect: as the solar ecosystems decline, there are fewer and fewer natural resources or even ecosystem services to sustain the humans that operate the fossil energy ecosystem. They are, whatever they may claim, however they may deny their entanglement with the solar-ecosystem, completely dependent on the solar powered ecosystem for its life-sustaining services. As a virulent pathogen will mindlessly kill its host, the operators of the fossil-carbon ecosystem will kill the solar powered ecosystem from which they themselves evolved, and upon which they depend.

It is further fatuous to suggest that the use of fossilized carbon is somehow normal for the solar-powered ecosystem. Earth’s living systems have painstakingly sequestered that carbon for hundreds of millions of years, and only recently, since the birth of humanity, has the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere been low enough, for the Earth’s climate to be stable enough, for humanity to emerge with its technology to use that carbon, only to then completely destabilize Earth’s climate, again. No indeed, the fossil-carbon ecosystem is not a “natural” system. It is a disruptive system. It is a system built from metals mined and smelt with carbon, from the carcasses of trees cut by machines that run on carbon, whose operators are fed by fish caught in nets made of fossil-carbon in boats built using fossil-carbon, and food that is grown with the aid of nitrogen that has been fixed with the energy of fossil-carbon. It is a system which is awash in waste that no creature can digest, which plugs the digestive systems of the solar-powered creatures, waste made from fossil carbon. It is a system whose guiding purpose is narrowly focused on the social welfare of its operators, at the expense of any of its living components. It is an ecosystem contrived by a species which, apparently, is utterly incompetent to design build or operate a system that is self-sustaining, in perpetuity, which is incompetent to anticipate and avert the consequences of its incompetence. We know it is incompetent because in this century we produce the sixth great extinction, we approach the tipping points of heat over rain in the Amazon rain forest, the ocean ecosystems, and the release of Arctic methane, that will set Earth on fire.

Thus demonstrating that they are two distinct ecosystems. So let us hope fervently that it is a distinct ecosystem, so we might carefully dismantle it.

Finally, in a bid for practical instructions, we must acknowledge that the second consumes the first. That second, not humanity the emergent intelligence of natural selection, but the modern, extractivist economy, emergent from the misguided application of human intelligence to the opportunities of mass markets, wealth accumulation, and the awesome efficiencies of fossil carbon and technology, consumes the first just as a disease organism consumes its host. Those instructions are: dismantle the fossil-carbon ecosystem as quickly as possible.

Seen on the timescale of a healthy, self-perpetuating solar ecosystem, the fossil-carbon ecosystem is an aberration, a sudden jolt in the CO2 curve, a short lived experiment in the burning of some of Gaia's fat. But we do not live on that time scale. We live from moment to moment in the time of the fever, and it is our duty, to ourselves, to our children, to life itself, to do everything in our power to reverse that heating, to cool the fever, and to bring humanity's economy back into balance with the solar economy.

How quickly depends on the plan. It is not humane to just stop pumping oil, because so many human lives subsist on its products. A transition must be applied. In this transition, we will switch from heavy consumerism to light consumerism, heavy beef consumption to light beef consumption, heavy plastic use to light plastic use, heavy fishing of the oceans to light fishing. One of the most important things we can do is declare oil to be a unique and precious natural resource that needs to be conserved for future generations, and used only for those products which are truly essential and for which no alternatives can be found. (These will be rare.) Another important change will be to ban planned obsolescence. All non-food products, in this economy, will be made to last, and to be repaired. In this economy, it will be difficult to get rich. That's ok. Personal wealth has no worth to social or ecosystem health. Let the community be wealthy in health and joyful living. Probably the most difficult change will be to decide that all lives matter: not just the white, not just the rich, not just the educated, not just the lucky. The global engine of science and good policy can be depended upon to do this work. The engine of popular will must fuel it.

The choice is not a good one, we will not like the adjustments, but we must shut down the fossil-carbon powered ecosystem, or it will shut down life. We must stop pumping, mining or processing carbon, stop cutting trees, stop stripping the oceans of fish, and allow prairies and forests to come back to life. We must, without any new injustices, without any added misery, without any coercive barbarity, with every ounce of our love for life and each other, with the strategies of economic security and education, and given sufficient time, reduce the human population to a level that can be sustained by the solar ecosystem. We must allow the solar-powered ecosystem to restore itself, and life. Because it can, if we allow it to. And if we do, we will feel our Mother’s love, and thrive in her abundance.

Copy rights, Stephen Alrich Marshall 9/17/2021