Monday, July 10, 2006

How radical do you want to get?

I was asked this question recently by a drunk (but serious, or secretly sober) influence peddler and pillar of the Minnesota business community. We were were talking about advocating not just for the replacement of foreign petroleum energy, but also the replacement of petrochemicals of foreign origin, with domestic sources from biomass. I said I was willing to get very radical. I think that went over well.

I think we do need radical refocusing on alternative energy. I also think we have to be careful in selecting technologies, not overpromise, and push (especially on the energy side) for conservation by the public, by industry, by government.

I think we need to avoid genetic engineering of wild plant species, and strategically important food crops regardless of their place of origin. I think there are enough "gemstones in the rough" in the naturally occuring diversity of microbes, plants, etc in Minnesota, that we do not need to, and for the sake of future generations, not gamble with directly manipulating the genes of wild species with molecular genetic technologies, with gene guns, etc. Traditional plant breeding, by traditional selection of desired traits (possibly augmented with measurement of targeted genes and understanding how they are involved in disease or insect resistence) should be enough to accomplish development of semi-wild industrial crops from a handful of native species.

I think habitat conservation is really important. I know from years of experimenting with propagating wild plant species that we can not undo the effects of habitat modification by cultivation, by mechanized logging, by filling and paving swamps and turning them into parking lots. I know that not all wild plants will survive or are appropriate for installation in urban landscapes, because buildings, lights, the 'heat sink'-thing change the environment, but that is not a good argument for using cheaper and commercially-standard plant materials that might contribute to the load of non-native, invasive seeds that birds spread into unmanaged parklands, etc. Local genotypes of suitable native plants should be used in landscapes wherever possible, because it might reduce the risk of introducing non-native pests, diseases, and weeds. But I have to admit that restoring damaged landscapes is less possible, and more expensive than trying to save, and manage for long-term survival of the constituent parts, those fragments of habitat that still remain.

Where habitat restoration is being pursued for aesthetic reasons, to create habitat for wildlife, there is an opportunity to produce biomass for energy, for biorefining, for the extraction of economically significal natural products and essential oils.

The biggest locus for biomass burning is based in the urban core of the Twin Cities. Trucking biomass in from the northwoods to burn may not be 'carbon neutral' when you consider the use of diesel or other fossil fuels in the trucks that haul it down. Ripping out, drying and burning all of the buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) in Saint Paul's unmanaged parks would create jobs and benefit the environment that would generate energy in the Saint Paul District Heating plant.

Incorporating heat and drought tolerant plants for biomass burning in Twin Cities parks will help meet energy needs and reduce the requirement for intensive irrigation that the Anglo-American lawn requires. It is droughty up here, and raising or lowering the water levels in our lakes and rivers to meet that watering requirement for purely aesthetic purposes is criminal when you consider the dependence of many Native American communities on wild rice and other edible aquatic wild plants that may be sensitive to that.

Do that first before you start chipping and shipping out the forests up here, and give landscape managers, and would be small-scale bioindustrialists in Greater Minnesota more time to figure out how to meet the anticipated energy and chemical needs of Twin Cities industry. And fully fund that research. Please.

Here is a plug of a good idea but not an organization I have thouroghly checked out: Apollo Alliance. They would invest $300 billion over 10 years in new energy technology development. They estimate 3 million jobs and $1 trillion increase in GDP. They don't obviously seem to be seeking out synergies in replacing petrochemicals with sources from wild-type plants, but I imagine they would be open to the idea if someone really fleshed-out the argument for them.

Anyway, we need to do that because our world is ending. At least the modern, petrochemical world of easy lifestyle enhancements from energy on demand, of synthetic plastics. We have to face the fact that we may soon be living in a siege economy, that we will face dramatic new diseases, the limits of the carrying capacity of the landscape, and this is excerbated by the global climate change that we will experience do to the landscape modifications and atmospheric carbon releases we have already made.

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