Alternative Title: A Shameless Plug for XKCD Although 97% of the world’s scientists agree that human-induced climate change is not only real, but poses a serious threat to the world’s future, many people in the general public disagree. Looking only at the United States, a 2016 Gallup poll found that 57% of U.S. adults do not perceive global […]
There’s a lot of debate in the world today about climate change (dun dun dun!) that generally centers around the question: is it real? YES. IT IS REAL. Phew. Glad we settled that. Last time I talked a bit about the water cycle: that wonderful, natural cycle by which the Earth produces the freshwater we […]
“If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
If I could convince you of one thing, it would be that Earth is an amazing creature. Earth is intelligent and intensely hardworking. Earth is nurturing and supportive almost to a fault.
4.6 billion years ago, Earth was a molten ball of lava and noxious gasses. Earth toiled and trudged and eventually that molten mass became continents and that noxious atmosphere diversified from mostly helium and hydrogen to water vapor, carbon monoxide, methane, ammonia, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrochloric acid and sulfur. As the Earth cooled, water vapor began to condense and rain out onto the surface, producing massive oceans. And in those oceans, Earth gave life to a blue-green algae that could photosynthesize carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. From there Earth toiled and trudged some more, fostering more and more complex creatures. 4.6 billion years later, after numerous species diversifications, catastrophes, and climate changes, here we are. The most intelligent and industrial species to ever inhabit this wonderful blue giant.
We’ve developed to a point where our ingenuity knows no bounds. We can create anything! Gidgets and gadgets galore! Who cares about the planet when we have iPhones and drones and robotic vacuum cleaners?! Whatever we need, we can create. Earth be damned!
Its audacious to think that we owe nothing to this planet. Its incredulous to insinuate that because we as a species are intelligent, we can snub the 4.6 billion years of wisdom that this planet holds. But I’m here to tell you, Earth will have the last laugh. And it might already be chuckling. Because there’s one thing our ingenuity has yet to solve and its a doozy. In a world where technology is worshiped by consumers everywhere, water scarcity remains the defining trial of our lifetime.
Let’s start with some facts: Earth, the water planet, is comprised of approximately 70% water but only 2.5% of that water is fresh water. However, 2/3 of that 2.5% is locked up in glaciers while the remaining 1/3 is mostly stored in aquifers, leaving less than 0.3% of the world’s freshwater in liquid form and at the surface.
So when you grab a glass of water from your tap, you’re generally drinking water that once flowed in a regional river, lake, or aquifer. Unfortunately, water is not a magical resource that appears out of nowhere. Water moves intricately throughout the landscape via “The Water Cycle.”
Powered completely by the sun, water in the ocean begins to heat up and evaporate, transforming from a liquid to a gas. As a gas, water rises up into the atmosphere. But as it gets high and higher, the surrounding air gets cooler and cooler, causing the gaseous water to condense and form clouds. Once these cloud reach saturation and that gas has condensed enough, precipitation occurs. Water is rained or snowed out on the landscape, where is runs off the slopes of hills and mountains into streams and rivers. Or it becomes a snowpack in the high mountains that melts in the springtime supplying water to rivers and streams. Or it infiltrates into the ground flowing via groundwater into rivers, and lakes, and the ocean. Once water is in a river, that river flows down through the landscape to eventually reach the ocean, where our process can repeat.
Its this cycle that makes water a renewable resource. Technically.
I say technically because all science is based on balance. A balance of all things—mass, momentum, energy. In 1789, Antoine Lavoisier discovered that mass was neither created nor destroyed in chemical reactions. Rather, mass changed. The resulting Law of Conservation of Mass remains a cornerstone of scientific endeavors today. The water cycle follows this principle—water is neither created nor destroyed but rather, through a series of simple chemical reactions, it is changed.
Here’s where that “technically” really comes into play: lets throw 7 billion people into the equation. Water is the most used substance on Earth. And I’m not just talking about the water we drink or the water we use around the house.
I’m talking about the 107 gallons of water it takes to grow one pound of corn.
I’m talking about the 650 gallons of water it takes to produce one pound of cheddar cheese.
I’m talking about the 3000 gallons of water it takes to produce enough feed for a cow to make one quarter-pounder.
I’m talking about 13 gallons of water it takes to produce 1 gallon of gasoline.
I’m talking about the 39,090 gallons of water it takes to produce a car.
I’m talking about the 700 gallons of water is takes to produce one plain cotton t-shirt.
I’m talking about the 2,600 gallons it takes to make one pair of jeans.
We wear, eat, and travel water. Day in, and day out. And a vast majority of us only think about water consumption in terms of how much we drink or use in our house. But its so much more than that.
Let’s put this back in the context of the water cycle. In the water cycle without humans, we have the amount of fresh water in equalling the amount of fresh water out. But now we’ve added one more step in our cycle: humans and the production of human things. So in our cycle, instead of all the water going round and round the cycle— never being corrupted, always staying fresh—some of it gets caught in things like clothes and cars and cows. Now, this water will continue on in the cycle after its used to produce jeans, jeeps,and jerky, but it wont be fresh anymore. There is still a balance. Water in equals water out. But that water out is not necessarily usable. That water has not been destroyed, it has been changed. And if that water isn’t continuing on in the cycle as fresh, usable water, then Conservation of Mass dictates that less fresh, usable water will continue on from that point.
And yet, we need water to survive. And, as fun as it sounds, we can’t just force everyone in the world to only use bicycles and become vegan nudists. Its a catch-22: we need the water to create things like food and clothes but we’re doing it at a rate that is diminishing the freshwater available to us.
I was voicing this exact water dilemma to the class I taught this past spring in Phoenix, AZ. In our final session, I left some time at the end for a discussion and asked the class (who, I should note, were all people over the age 50): what can we do? How do we, as citizens of Earth, work towards more responsible water usage? The answers I got were quite varied. They ranged from increasing water conservation education in K-12 classrooms so as to create cultural shift in how we think about water to the need for more reclamation works to divert water from rivers with lots of water (i.e. the Mississippi) to rivers with less water (i.e. the Colorado). Although these answers are in opposition to one another, they were nonetheless answers I expected. There was one answer, however, that completely took me off guard.
A student responded, “I don’t understand what the problem is! We’ve already solved this—we can just 3D print our own food!”
To be honest, I was completely taken aback by this answer. In fact, I was so taken aback I couldn’t articulate quickly enough why that idea was woefully misguided. And if you’re reading this thinking, “Yeah, that makes sense, we could do that.” You’re not alone. In today’s climate of frenzied technology lovers, its hard to not agree that technological advances should be the answer to our problems. And on the surface, if you don’t think too hard about it, 3D printing food does sound somewhat reasonable.
But before you get all excited about 3D printed apples and pies and burgers, let me remind you of our handy dandy scientific cornerstone: Conservation of Mass.
Mass can neither be created nor destroyed.
Think about a regular printer. When you go to print a document, it doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. It is created using ink and paper that you provide to the machine.
Similar to a regular printer, a 3D printer does not create a 3-dimensional object out of thin air. It requires special kinds of ink and energy. You have inputs that combine to create your output. So if you wanted to 3D print food, you would need a special “ink” that contained all the carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins required for that particular food item. And you would need, you guessed it, WATER.
You know what’s a darn good 3D apple printer? An apple tree. No newfangled technology necessary. Just good ole fashioned Mother Nature.
Maybe we should strive to remember that.
Welcome to The Confluence, a blog dedicated to discussing and exploring ways in which geology intersects with your everyday life. Some background: I am a geologist. What that means: I love rocks, the outdoors, and beer. More specifically, I am a fluvial geomorphologist. What that means: I study how rivers work. If you continue following this […]