Don’t Know Much Biology


There’s a post up over at Watts Up With That? which takes a look at She Guevara’s proposal for a Green New Deal. I suppose it’s “green” because the “thinking” behind it isn’t ripe yet. One of the goals for her Green New Deal would be “decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries” within ten years. Let’s set aside the financial cost of decarbonizing agriculture and simply consider biology and physics.

Human beings are carbon-based life forms. The vast majority of the energy that our bodies use to keep us alive is derived from chemical reactions that amount to burning the carbon in the food we eat. That food, whether plant or animal, was from other carbon-based life forms which, in turn, were alive because those critters grew by burning carbon. (Many plants actually store more carbon than they burn. That’s why animals eat them or humans burn them for fuel.)

Over my lifetime (I’ll be 71 on New Year’s Eve), hunger and malnutrition around the world have been greatly reduced by the mechanization of agriculture and the use of chemical supplements to fertilize and protect crops. All of that required an expenditure of energy that wasn’t possible by manual or animal-powered labor. How many windmills would it take to power a tractor and planting and harvesting equipment on a farm? A windmill is a set of sails catching the wind. Image a sail-powered tractor. Now add the additional losses of power transmission over wires and charging and discharging batteries. How much hydro? How large a solar array? And how much farm land would be lost to solar arrays? Most crops don’t do well in the shade. Oh, and most man-made pesticides are organic (that is, carbon-based) chemicals; so are most natural bug killers. Where will we get the energy needed to produce and distribute those chemicals to farms and apply them to the crops? Or will more of our fields’ produce go to feeding insects and less to people?

We’ve used so-called carbon-based energy over the past couple of centuries to power the revolutions in industry and agriculture that have drastically reduced hunger and made life better around the world. Actually, all of that energy has come from the Sun. The energy in sunshine from tens of millions of years ago was stored in chemical reactions in living organisms which were turned into coal, petroleum, and natural gas. We’ve been tapping into that stored energy. It may be that we’re returning carbon in the form of combustion products into the environment at an unhealthy rate. If so, we have other options. The uranium and thorium here on Earth are the decay products of heavy elements forged in stars that went supernova billions of years ago. We can tap into that stored energy, but there’s a different set of dangers in those sources.

Every time we do something, anything, the amount of entropy in the Universe increases. Everything has a cost. Thus far, the free market has shown superior performance over all other economic systems. Efficient agriculture developed in the US—but not in the USSR. The free market puts less of a drag on society than its competitors. Going to a what amounts to a green command economy seems doubly foolish—likely poorer performance in food production and proven worse efficiency in economic resource management.

Here’s an iron law of nature: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Congress lacks to power to repeal it.

One thought on “Don’t Know Much Biology

  1. What I’m puzzled by is that for one who minored in Economics she has an amazing lack of understanding of said topic. One has to wonder whether it’s her or the (lack of???) education from Boston University that gave her this inept understanding of Econ 101.

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