Ecological Civility is a Numerical Score

John E Coulter
Originally published in Chinese in World Environment 世界环境 2013:3

Imagine that people have a pair of numbers on a screen on their forehead. On top, the numerator is what they get from their surroundings and below, the denominator is what is left of their surroundings. This would make people living simple lives in harmony with nature look good and those living lavish lives and draining resources look bad. It is in fact easy to imagine, and though even approximate numbers are difficult to estimate, it becomes obvious which citizens of the planet are ecologically civilized.

The numbers are in gigajoules measuring the energy representing the goods and services in their life. For a simple citizen in a simple rural community, the goods and services, consisting mainly of food, shelter and clothing and services like cooking and clothes washing may have expended a few gigajoules in delivery (the top number). The denominator is labor, and is less than the numerator. A daily read-out may be 12/10 in gigajoules. A jet-setting high roller enjoys a luxurious and complex lifestyle of foods and drinks, transport and accommodation. Consuming a thousand dollars of goods and services a day may represent a 100 gigajoules, on the numerator line. Those luxuries are extracted from nature at high cost and indeed the person requiring them has used up 15,000 gigajoules of economic activity.

This is not as novel as it first may seem. In the Song Dynasty there emerged the concept in philosophy/religion of the Merit and Demerit Ledger (gong guo ge 成过格) whereby individuals were allocated or deducted points for good and bad deeds, including maintaining and improving the environment. Whether other people know our score or not, it is there – “heaven has eyes”(上天有眼).

The old ways of measuring “wealth” without the ecological footprint from where it is extracted needs a thorough rethink. The father of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, 科学方法之父,弗兰西斯•培根listed four sources of false thinking, of which the most insidious was misuse of language. He targeted “names of things which exist, but yet confused and ill-defined, and hastily and irregularly derived from realities”. One such abstract noun is “energy” – only coined 160 years ago by James Joule to express the relationship between a mechanical force (turning a wheel) and the heat unintentionally generated. It proved a useful concept but is now the source of endless confusion. Energy cannot be produced or consumed – it is transformed from useful to “unavailable” energy.

A clear and fresh analysis is based on what we now know in modern science. Accounting for energy that we must work to harness, and distinguishing it from that which is dissipated and unusable is the key to ascertaining ecological civility at the level of individual, community and nation. The bottom line, as embarrassing as it is to many rich people, irrefutably shows their lifestyle as not only unsustainable, but cheating on the community. Why should common folk admire or at least not object to ostentation and ecological abuse.

When humans use energy, working, in farming, mining, manufacture and serving, there are carbon-hydrogen bonds broken to “release” heat and forces. The C-H bond is held together with a matrix of coulombic forces that requires 4.2 eV to break but the carbon immediately bonds with O2 at 8.3 eV or worse, CO at 11.1eV. The tighter the new bond, the more energy is released and available for work.

A numerator begging for a denominator

Where does the released energy actually come from? Chemical engineers have a blasé answer which turns out to be quite superficial. At the level of single atoms and molecules, one molecule of the simplest hydrocarbon fuel, natural gas, methane (CH4) combusts with two molecules of oxygen and results in one molecule of carbon dioxide and two of water. The total of coulombic forces between carbon and hydrogen in the fuel, and between oxygen atoms in their molecules is 27 electronvolts. After combustion the new molecules have aggregate bond energy of 35 eV and 8 eV is “released”, and “available” for heating, or driving a car, or any economic use. A kilogram of any fuel gives off energy within the range of 14 to 46 megajoules – that is, wood, bread, natural gas, coal, butter, plant oil, gasoline, in ascending order.

In the future, from a perspective of ecological civility, instead of industrial engineers, economists, administrators and leaders talking about “energy produced” “energy demand” and “energy consumed”, the question will be sought in terms of entropy. “How much available energy did you use, and to what extent is unavailable energy (entropy) increased?” There is one scientific, objective way where a numerical score can be calculated.

The energy released when the bond becomes stronger is sourced from within an entire suite of proton-electron partnerships of the molecule. How can we conceptualize and quantify this complex matrix of coulombic forces? The methane molecule housing 4 C-H bonds can be represented by an Electron Density Function, to show where the bonds reside (Figure 2). It is only fairly recently physical chemists have begun plotting the shape and volume of molecules. Richard Bader(1990) has pioneered the precise mapping of atoms within molecules and depicted their topology, complete with contour lines. The purpose is primarily to better understand bonding. From the perspective of resource economics and environmental economics, the source of energy released, and what happens after release, is highly pertinent. Though Bader’s Quantum Theory of Atoms in Molecules highlights the varied charge distribution within a molecule, the aggregate charge (average density x volume) is also apparent. Figure 3 shows the shape of a carbon monoxide molecule that is the product when a fuel burns in a confined space, such as in a car engine. This overall configuration and volume of Electron Charge Density for the oxygen atom (left) and the carbon atom (right) nests the C-O triple bond and sheds (“releases”) 11 electronvolts no longer needed to maintain the molecular structure. How this is quantified is a problem not seen as relevant to laboratory chemists, but in a world of limited resources, drawing down this number and replacing it (unintentionally) with more inert molecules should be a serious question.

In research to date, for this exercise the individual coulombic forces were simply added. The ionization energy for the single hydrogen electron is 13.6 eV. For oxygen and carbon it was estimated that the outer and inner shells were 13 and 10 eV, leading to base numbers for each molecule. In aggregate the 27 eV of bonds resulting in 35 eV of bonds in the product molecules should be represented as a changing ratio, in this project estimated to be from 27/464 eV to 35/465 eV. In Figure 4 the atoms are shown as circles with the overlaps representing bond energies and the total area of the circles as the total charge of each molecule.

Figure 4 The bond strengths are represented by the overlaps between atoms and show the total in reactants as 27 and in products as 35, releasing the difference as “available energy”. But this diagram shows the entire molecular shape as representing a base of aggregate columbic forces, so that the process can be characterized as increasing the entropy of the system from 27/464 to 35/456.

The approach is applicable in a range of scales in several dimensions. Time analysis can be per second, per hour, month, year or lifetime. The goods and services can be individual commodities or a whole basket up to total consumption. The approach can be applied to an individual, or group, right up to nations and globally. For one year, the top line represents annual income for an individual and GDP for a nation. The numerator puts that wealth in perspective.

As a simple exercise in understanding of the rigor of the approach, consider the commodity in most demand in the world: air. We do not pay for air but in the numerator in joules there is a small token but vital number for the “work” done in breathing in. The denominator is in joules for bonds of the carbon dioxide formed, and this would be a killer except that photosynthesis in nature reverses that. An ordinary person living normally would have a healthy read-out. But now in a modern heavily polluted city the demand by the rich for clean air costs the energy required to construct and operate closed, air-purified offices and homes. The numerator is high and damage done to the environment makes the denominator even much higher.

The same exercise can be conducted for water, deemed “free” by the founder of resource economics, Ricardo, in 1817. In energy terms it simple was a walk to the stream. Now water requires considerable energy to deliver for consumption, transported long distances and treated to make a high numerator. The denominator is a very high entropy level representing the polluted emissions from the process.

The numerical monitor of ecological civility is a big improvement on the adhoc occasional attempts to draw attention to people with wealth who posed as green but actually burdened the planet. There has been sporadic criticism such as Hollywood stars who show-off their affection for low-carbon by driving a fuel-economy hybrid car but still using their private jet, and of Nobel laureate GHG champion Al Gore’s huge electricity bill for his mansion.

The figures used in this article are drawn from preliminary research and can be improved. But the use of cost of what we consume in work done supplying it, measured in joules, is far more enlightening than dollar cost. Even more encouraging to ecological civility is to draw attention to the bottom line, of the impact of our actions to our planet.

: https://www.coulterexergy.com/archives/931

No comments yet.