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Memewatch: Carbohydrate Economy
Alex Steffen, 12 Jul 06

"Carbohydrate economy" (a term we've used before) is a meme-on-the-move. Roughly, it is a term used to distinguish a plant-based economy from a fossil fuel or "carbon-based" economy (every society was plant-based until the we started burning coal at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution; and since we're parenthetical here, it could be argued that since fossil fuels are mostly fossil plants, we still are a plant-based economy, but let's not quibble here...). Currently used mostly by those advocating for things like biofuels and bioplastics.

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Use oil for (recyclable) plastics and plants for fuel.

Posted by: JN2 on 13 Jul 06

The rest of Nature has a Carbohydrate Economy. We have a Promethean Economy. We're the only species that manipulates fire. We mine ancient sunlight. The rest of Nature uses current solar income, creating all of itself at room temperature and ambient pressure. Neat trick - perhaps we could learn something.

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Jul 06

I think we need to remember why we migrated to fossil fuels in the first place: using wood and crops for fuel was utterly denuding industrialized countries of forests and wildlands during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. For a while it was looking as if to power the textile mills of the new economy we'd have to burn down all the houses. Coal allowed us to bypass that.

All the trees and farmlands of North America simply aren't enough to supply all our paper, all our building materials, all our food, all our plastics and now all our electricity as well.

Understand I'm not totally dismissing the biofuel concept. In special cases it's the just the thing we need. For example, I'm very much in favor of using plant-based plastic resins as a sink to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

I'm just saying that as an energy option they are limited. A typical photovoltaic cell is more efficient at converting sunlight to usable energy than plant photosynthesis. That should tell us what we should be focusing more strongly on.

We should view biomass as sink, not a source.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Jul 06

Good point about plant-based plastics being CO2 sinks. With recent advances in batteries and super-capacitors and sold-state power management, hopefully we get to an electric car sooner rather than later. Or as AlanFromBigEasy over at TheOilDrum would argue, let's have electric streetcars and railways everywhere. The sooner we quit burning stuff the better.

Posted by: JN2 on 13 Jul 06

First: The link for the previous post on the carbohydrate economy just links back to this post.

Second: Why does everyone seem to take any advance in technology or mention of alternative energy sources as a directive to completely change our economy to run_only_ off of that energy source? Diversity should be encouraged, and during a time of exploration, such as the time we live in now, I don't see how it's productive to dismiss out of hand any alternative energy source simply because it _alone_ cannot supply the energy needs of the entire world.

The world requires a myriad of solutions which are appropriate for the circumstances of their implementation: wind and waves for the UK, solar for the Sahara.

Posted by: Dave Chiu on 13 Jul 06

“All the trees and farmlands of North America simply aren't enough to supply all our paper, all our building materials, all our food, all our plastics and now all our electricity as well.”

Trees are not necessarily the best crops for any of this. Hemp can be used to make paper and is a far more productive crop for that purpose than trees. It can even be used to create building materials. And some of the greenest houses are not made out of wood at all.

Also, there is a question of conservation and appropriate use. Do we really need to use all the resources we use to build and heat homes, raise food, etc.? Do you really need all that plastic wrapped around the things you buy? Do you really need to run your computer 24/7, or burn as many lights as you do?

I also agree with Dave Chiu. No one solution need address every problem.

Posted by: Michael K on 16 Jul 06

David Foley made an interesting point, which actually takes us back to the conclusion that most of the energy that we use on earth actually comes, or came, from the sun - geothermal energy being just about the only exception. Look at how we use it now - we burn fossils, which is probably the most inefficient way to tap solar energy. We use the photoelectric effect of solar rays - any photoelectric material will only react to one frequency in the very, very wide spectrum of solar radiation, so that is wasteful too.
Wind, hydro, wave and OTEC only use fractions of the the heat from the sun that was absorbed by matter on earth - how efficient is that.

So what is the best way to use the biggest nuclear fusion reactor in the solar system? I dont know, but the point is, we should keep trying, and there must be a better way. Once we find the ideal way, it certainly can supply us all the power we can ever dream of using - well maybe almost!

Posted by: Anthony on 17 Jul 06



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