Chapter IV:  An environmental balance sheet
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
– John Muir

How can the value of renewable resources, a clean environment generally, be assessed in the new “complete” energy economy? The environmental purist’s answer is that the environment is self evidently priceless, must not be taken for granted, and be left pristine. However, the 2nd law forces an admission that the extraction from the surroundings of both energy, and the nutrient resources that energy renews, is necessary to sustain life’s systems, and that the extraction must result in a greater net disorder in the surroundings. The natural disorder created in the surroundings can be overcome, i.e. can become re-ordered, with the constant influx of solar energy to the Earth’s systems. But currently the rate of our consumption of energy and energy-equivalent renewable resources is out of balance with this intake. The resulting disorder in the surroundings is overwhelming the ecosystems ability to regenerate order. The goal for a sustainable economy is to overcome the disorder in the Earth’s ecosystems with energy, ideally from the Sun, ultimately shifting the universal net disorder of the 2nd law onto the surroundings of the solar energy system. The key to prioritizing environmental action, locally or globally, is to recognize the balances that an ecosystem maintains with its natural cycles, and assess the energy value of that balance that is otherwise taken for granted, ultimately an energy received from the Sun.

The balance must account for feedbacks between other ecosystems: a solution for one problem often becomes a liability for another. “Doing the right thing” in one case is often in conflict with another environmental issue, from the mundane, “Should I use a paper or plastic bag?” to an entire economic restructuring, “Is a hydrogen economy a good idea in the face of water scarcity?” Environmental issues seem to make news only with each newly discovered crisis. The greatest environmental problems are the ones that threaten to disrupt a local or global life-sustaining balance, and/or consume renewable resources at rates beyond their replenishment. In that context, it is possible to assess the liability of the threat in energy terms. In that way, it is possible to categorize and then prioritize environmental problems by the energy demands required to address the issue versus the energy value of the improved environment in return.

The following environmental balance sheet is only an attempt to broadly categorize our most pressing environmental problems in energy terms. Like any balance sheet, the environment has assets and debits, and must use the assets to cover expenses. More detailed environmental energy analyses can be conducted for local issues generally, or for a specific issue globally. Accounting for the energy in terms of our most familiar, hands-on unit of energy currency, the gallon of gasoline, may help to conceptualize the relative value of assets, where 1 gallon of gasoline = 132 mega-Joules = 32 mega-calories = 37 kW-hrs.

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