The importance of seeing the world as a closed chemical system

Today, I want to talk about the planet being a smorgasbord of chemical systems in constant flux without political boundaries. Seeing it as such is of paramount importance for a thriving future society.

I think it is extremely important to see it this way. It will serve the environmentalist within us, sure. Having a good realistic vision of how this planetary system is interconnected should help us in our decision-making today to create a nice future to us all.

In scientific terms, the Earth is a closed system. It receives energy from the Sun and dissipates just as much energy outwards but matter-wise, the number of molecules that come in and out of the atmosphere is negligible.

This means that every atom of carbon, hydrogen, iron, nitrogen, phosphorus (and all the rest) on the planet remains on the planet. They just get connected with other atoms over time through chemical reactions. Molecules get broken down and reassembled in different ways. Molecules also move around by air, waterways and through contact with living creatures. Some of them move around due to natural phenomena like volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes. But all this matter, all these atoms stay on the Earth. There will always be exactly the same amount of each type of atom on Earth. They just get rearranged.

The Earth is just a bunch of chemicals following the laws of thermodynamics.

Then we have life.

Organic molecules that make up living creatures also follow the laws of thermodynamics, but contrary to inorganic molecules, organic molecules in life is the great molecular organizer, opposing entropy, powered by the Sun. Plants and plankton take sunlight to create molecular energy (sugars, fats) from simpler molecules (carbon dioxide and water) to build more cells, grow and multiply. Animals and bacteria eat these photosynthesizing marvels for their molecular energy, also to build more cells, grow and multiply.

Life builds up in complexity and organizes while the non-living chemistry constantly tries to erode and disintegrate.

This is the nature of things.

Why are these concepts important?

Before human industrialization, all of life was in harmony but it wasn’t calm. There was a balance in the chemistry. There was just as much construction by the living as there was destruction by the non-living. When we industrialized, we started the process of interfering with the planet’s chemical equilibrium in a significant way, throwing much more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than previously and destroying an incalculable amount of vegetation giving us space to grow and produce. We didn’t know any better for a long time out of ignorance. We were messing around with the very systems that normally reabsorbed the carbon dioxide to make more chemical energy for life and importantly, to convert some of it into oxygen the animals need. Starting early in the 20th century carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere started rising above historical highs, triggering counterbalances in this single chemical experiment we call home.

NASA Carbon Dioxide Vital Signs

Whether human-made deforestation and industrial pollution occurs in Asia or in Europe, the effect is felt everywhere since all those chemical systems are intimately interconnected.

On the other hand, this additional carbon dioxide and additional water vapor due to a global increase in average temperature spurred additional growth of vegetation. Our ecosystem will constantly try to balance itself. Lunge, riposte.

And so, it did.

It is an action-reaction effect we can measure. We cannot ignore this balance. All our activities within this closed system affects all the chemistry trying to balance itself out. The trick and the main point of this article is that we must understand these balancing acts and work with the huge amount of chemical reactions out there for our benefit.

The world has started to awaken to this fact in 2016 with the Paris Agreement (and most countries have agreed in unison to take actions to evaluate possible damages to our ecosystems and rolled out the start of a plan to dial things back quite a bit over the next few years. That’s a great first step.

It is quite to our advantage to ensure the natural chemical balance within nature’s ecosystems are not compromised to a point of no return. There is such a thing.

In addition, it raises the question of how we take decisions moving forward as we gain more and more understanding of our physical impact in the world. Knowing that everything we do has a chain reaction impact all over the planet to a degree, is humbling but predictable.

Modern tools can help us predict and manage our impact on the Earth. We just can’t do it alone.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and distributed ledgers are highly disruptive technologies that have started the 4th industrial revolution. They are software, which means more memory, more computing devices and more power needed for computing. We can choose how we are drawing power (ideally from the Sun directly), we can choose in what materials we build our devices and we can choose how we are manufacturing these components. This all means converting molecules and atoms to a different state of existence using energy. We can minimize the environmental impacts of these processes, and/or integrate the processes with natural biological processes. That’s why synthetic biology is of great interest to me: using biological systems that already exists to convert materials from one form to another but within the boundaries and chemical balances of natural systems. AI and distributed ledgers therefore can both help build a highly efficient balanced future for us and help us predict our impact on the Earth’s chemical balances without disrupting these balances along the way.

Also, artificial intelligence and distributed ledgers can save huge amounts of energy by allowing citizens of a nation to solve problems on their own without the need of wasteful and expensive central systems. Transferring money from one person to another using Bitcoin has a much lower environmental impact than using a bank with its buildings and employees. Having AI manage the food supply chain through fully automated farming, self-driving transport vehicles and on-demand automated grocery delivery drones to the home is supremely efficient. We could then avoid 30% of the food we are wasting every season. It would keep everything solar-powered and electrical (versus combustion power for all the vehicles involved). We’d save space, thus costs by having no workers around taking up space in homes nearby, use break rooms, use bathrooms and taking up space in vehicles. Stay home humans, you’re in the way of an efficient supply chain!

Today’s and tomorrow’s technology can be designed to work in harmony or even enhance the other chemical reactions going on all around us for our benefit.

A great example of this is the idea to use the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we’ve been cumulating for years, powered by the Sun, to create gasoline. Several research teams have shown we can make gasoline this way in a single stage reaction. If we can do that, we can also make other carbohydrates like sugar, starch or some plastics if we set our minds to it. I’m sure some labs have figured that last part out. Other teams in China have figured out an easy way, through genetic engineering, how to grow rice plants in ocean water, allowing for changes to an ecosystem that wouldn’t have changed otherwise while adding much more available farmland.

We will continue to change our world, our big blue spaceship because we are creators and engineers. We want to improve our lives and do amazing things. What I’m saying is that we must find a good way to deploy our ideas so that balance of the rest of the chemical systems on the planet is not inadvertently or overly negatively affected.

It will be a measure of our social maturity whether we are able to do this collaboratively, together, at a time when not every national leader seems to understand the global impact we all have.