This will be a series of posts on a subject that is of great concern to me as a father: how to create a better, more sustainable world for our children. I have long thought about starting the series but I kept putting it off. It is now time to start, no more excuses.
Back when I was a chemical engineer (it only lasted 2 years after college) I was involved in the design of a corn-to-ethanol plant. Several such plants were built in the US Corn Belt as a response to the oil crisis in the early 1980s, and were heavily dependent on federal subsidies for gasohol (a blend of gasoline and alcohol). But it wasn't the economics of the plant which created a lasting impression on me - rather, it was the chemistry/bioprocess itself.
Corn ethanol is produced by fermentation using enzymes, aka yeast, living microorganisms that convert sugars contained in the grain into alcohol. In simple terms, they eat corn and excrete alcohol as their waste. The process takes place in chemical reactors aptly called "digesters", and it relies on constantly maintaining an optimum balance between healthy enzymes (the critters), corn (their food) and ethanol (their waste).
And it has to be a balance because if there is too much food the critters will multiply uncontrollably, produce too much alcohol - which is actually a poison for them -and will die from exposure to their own waste. Conversely, if there is too little food they will turn on each other and become critter cannibals. Also, if the fermentation is allowed to run too fast and too hot (it is exothermic) the critters will die off, since they cannot tolerate high temperatures. The trick, therefore, is to introduce food (corn) and extract waste (alcohol + CO2+heat) in a carefully calculated balance to keep the critters healthy and happy.
Does this sound familiar?
Of course it does: we humans are the enzymes, the Earth is our reactor vessel and we consume its resources to fill it with our waste. But, there is a crucial difference: The Earth is a closed system with limited resources (with the important exception of incoming solar radiation) and no way to extract excess waste/heat. Also, we too are prone to cannibalism (war).
What's our saving grace? We got critter brains - but even that is a double-edged sword, as we know from the likes of Caligula, Attila, Hitler, Mao and many more such nasty "critters". And no matter how smart, at some point the deleterious effects of exponential growth overcome our capacity to deal with them.
Signs of such a Tipping Point are everywhere: Global warming, climate change, species and habitat collapse, massive pollution and, very worryingly, a trend towards lifestyle diseases and habits, resulting in poor health and sudden life expectancy drops in wealthy countries like the US. We even got a global deadly pandemic, a war and “critter arm wrestling” between the world’s two largest critter colonies (US vs China). The alarm bells are ringing, that's for sure.
I think the physical, scientific evidence on the ground is overwhelming. But what about finance - what is happening there?
This will be the subject of Part Two.