Tag Archives: earth

The world is not our oyster

We think it is all about us. The world is our oyster. We developed the current global economic structure in which the costs of environmental damage, labour exploitation, and socio-political disruption are ignored, or perhaps even celebrated, as the price of doing business. Our philosophy stumbles over the word ‘equal’ because it maintains that we have dominion over all that is nature. We struggle to imagine that others might know something we don’t, or that fish and trees have languages of their own. If such understanding was possible for us, life on earth would not becoming to an end.

The words are mine but I have borrowed very heavily from Geetanjali Shree in ‘The Tomb of Sand‘ for the first two and last two sentences. She is describing white people and the West. Also from Chandran Nair in ‘Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a post-Western World‘ in the third sentence and from Suzanne Simard in ‘Finding the Mother Tree‘.


Chandran Nair, Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a post-Western World, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, 2022

Geetanjali Shree, The Tomb of Sand, Tilted Axis Press, 2021.

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Penguin, 2021.


On flatness and roughness

Photograph of aircraft carrier in heavy seas for decorative purposes onlyFlatness is a tricky term to define.  Technically, it is the deviation, or lack of deviation, from a plane. However, something that appears flat to human eye often turns out not to be at all flat when looked at closely and measured with a high resolution instrument.  It’s a bit like how the ocean might appear flat and smooth to a passenger sitting comfortably in a window seat of an aeroplane and looking down at the surface of the water below but feels like a roller-coaster to a sailor in a small yacht.  Of course, if the passenger looks at the horizon instead of down at the yacht below then they will realise the surface of the ocean is curved but this is unlikely to be apparent to the sailor who can only see the next line of waves advancing towards them.  Of course, the Earth is not flat and the waves are better described as surface roughness.  Some months ago I wrote about our struggles to build a thin flat metallic plate using additive manufacturing [see ‘If you don’t succeed, try and try again…’ on September 29th, 2021].  At the time, we were building our rectangular plates in landscape orientation and using buttresses to support them during the manufacturing process; however, when we removed the plates from the machine and detached the buttresses they deformed into a dome-shape.  I am pleased to say that our perseverance has paid off and recently we have been much more successful by building our plates orientated in portrait mode, i.e., with the short side of the rectangle horizontal, and using a more sophisticated design of buttresses.  Viewed from the right perspective our recent plates could be considered flat though in reality they deviate from a plane by less than 3% of their in-plane dimensions and also have a surface roughness of several tens of micrometres (that’s the average deviation from the surface).  The funding organisations for our research expect us to publish our results in a peer-reviewed journal that will only accept novel unpublished results so I am not going to say anything more about our flat plates.  Instead let me return to the ocean analogy and try to make you seasick by recalling an earlier career in which I was on duty on the bridge of an aircraft carrier ploughing through seas so rough, or not flat, that waves were breaking over the flight deck and the ship felt like it was still rolling and pitching when we sailed serenely into port some days later.

The current research is funded jointly by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK (see Grants on the Web).

Image from https://laststandonzombieisland.com/2015/07/22/warship-wednesday-july-22-2015-the-giant-messenger-god/1977-hms-hermes-r-12-with-her-bows-nearly-out-of-the-water/

Ample sufficiency of solar energy?

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

I have written several times about whether or not the Earth is a closed system [see for example: ‘Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter‘ on December 10th, 2014] & ‘Revisiting closed systems in Nature‘ on October 5th, 2016).  The Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system because there is energy transfer between the Earth and its surroundings as illustrated by the schematic diagram. Although, the total incoming solar radiation (341 Watts/sq. metre (W/m²)) is balanced by the sum of the reflected solar radiation (102 W/m²) and the outgoing longwave radiation (239 W/m²); so, there appears to be no net inflow or outflow of energy.  To put these values into perspective, the world energy use per capita in 2014 was 1919 kilograms oil equivalent, or 2550 Watts (according to World Bank data); hence, in crude terms we each require 16 m² of the Earth’s surface to generate our energy needs from the solar energy reaching the ground (161 W/m²), assuming that we have 100% efficient solar cells available. That’s a big assumption because the best efficiencies achieved in research labs are around 48% and for production solar cells it’s about 26%.

There are 7.6 billion of us, so at 16 m² each, we need  120,000 square kilometres of 100% efficient solar cells – that’s about the land area of Greece, or about 500,000 square kilometres with current solar cells, which is equivalent to the land area of Spain.  I picked these countries because, compared to Liverpool, the sun always shines there; but of course it doesn’t, and we would need more than this half million square kilometres of solar cells distributed around the world to allow the hours of darkness and cloudy days.

At the moment, China has the most generating capacity from photovoltaic (PV) cells at 78.07 GigaWatts or about 25% of global PV capacity and Germany is leading in terms of per capita generating capacity at 511 Watts per capita, or 7% of their electricity demand.  Photovoltaic cells have their own ecological footprint in terms of the energy and material required for their production but this is considerably lower than most of our current sources of energy [see, for example Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles by Fthenakis et al, 2008].


Trenberth KE, Fasullo JT & Kiehl J, Earth’s global energy budget, Bulletin of  the American Meteorological Society, March 2009, 311-324, https://doi.org/10.1175/2008BAMS2634.1.

World Bank Databank: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE

Nield D, Scientists have broken the efficiency record for mass-produced solar panels, Science Alert, 24th March 2017.

2016 Snapshot of Global Photovoltaic Markets, International Energy Agency Report IEA PVPS T1-31:2017.

Fthenakis VM, Kim HC & Alsema E, Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles, Environmental Science Technology, 42:2168-2174, 2008.

What a waste

20120609_wom915Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc², does not influence everyday interactions of energy, E and mass, m.  The speed of light, c is 299 792 458 m/s which is very big number and implies a huge amount of energy is required to create a small amount of mass.  This means that energy and mass are independently conserved.  For energy, this is the first law of thermodynamics while the law of conservation of mass is usually attributed to Antoine Lavoisier.  On a planetary scale, the conservation of mass implies that we can assume that the quantity of matter is constant.  Can we apply the second law of thermodynamics to matter as well as energy?  One interpretaton of the second law is that Gibbs energy, or the energy available to do useful work, must decrease in all real processes.   This also applies when matter moves through our economic system.  For instance, we must do work to convert mineral ores into useful products which gradually degrade through use and natural processes, such as corrosion, until they become scrap and we must expend more resources to recycle them and make them useful again.  The sun provides us with a steady supply of useful energy, so that in energy terms planet Earth can be considered an open system with energy flows in and out.  Conversely in mass terms, planet Earth is effectively a closed system with negligible mass flow in or out, so that we do not have a steady supply of new matter from which to manufacture goods.  However, most of us behave with open-world mindset and throw away matter (goods) that are no longer useful to us when we should be repairing and recycling [see my post entitled ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st 2013].  Maybe we can’t reach the zero-waste status aimed at by people like Bea Johnson, but most of us could do better than the 2.2 kg of solid waste produced each day by each of us in OECD countries. That’s 2.1 tonnes per year for an average OECD household (2.63 people)!


The New Sustainable Frontier – principles of sustainable development, GSA Office of Governmentwide Policy, September 2009.

Daniel Hoornweq & Perinaz Bhada-Tata, What a Waste: A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, World Bank No.15, 2012.