Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Monday 7 November 2011

Why physics says convenience culture is bad for the environment

I imagine some regular readers will have seen the title of this post and thought, "what?", "that's not what the Ecology Spot is about - what's Dave up to?" Well, I agree it is a bit of a departure from the norm - I generally keep away from the big science-and-philosophy topics because there are plenty of bloggers out there already doing just this, and in many cases doing it very well. However, an idea popped into my head and sometimes such ideas just have to be followed to see where they go... So, where did it come from?

Well, when I'm not scrutinising invertebrates and other organisms, I sometimes like to leave my comfort zone and delve into a bit of maths and physics - usually somewhere in between the paperbacks-for-beginners (too basic) and textbooks (too hard). To be honest, this is a fairly narrow line for a writer to tread, so there aren't that many books to choose from, but there are some - Feynman, Greene, Hawking, Penrose... ah, Penrose... You see, I've been reading his new book, Cycles of Time and very interesting it is too. Most of it isn't relevant here, but I got to one section (pages 77-79 in the 2011 paperback) which explained that the energy the Earth receives from the sun more-or-less equals the energy it radiates. I knew this (amaong other things, I teach courses covering climate change, so ought to really), and I knew that the 'yellow' photons from the sun have a higher frequency that the infra-red ones the Earth emits. What I had not realised was that this means that the sun provides the Earth with energy in a lower-entropy form than that which it emits. Que? Well, the overall amount of energy emitted equals that received but as this energy is spread across a greater number of lower-frequency photons, the entropy ('randomness') increases upon emission - there are more photons, hence more 'degrees of freedom'.

Now, you might quite rightly be wondering where all this is going and what it has to do with convenience culture. The answer is 'nothing' directly, but it is what started me thinking (always a risk) about topics like conservation of energy and so on. Without going into exactly how I got there, the key thought that appeared from all this was essentially:

"If 'convenience' means doing things without putting any personal effort in, where does the energy to do them come from?"

See what I mean? If I want to dig a hole in my garden, some resources are used to manufacture my shovel and provide me with food as fuel for my labours. However, if I decide that I want the hole without the labour, any other option (apart from not creating the hole) uses more resources. If I get a machine, this will have been manufactured using more resources than the shovel, and will need fuel (I will need to eat either way). An operator or delivery person may need to be paid and this money comes from my income which in turn, somewhere along the line, derives from the use of natural resources from a finite system. So, the more I spend (i.e. consume), the more resources are being depleted somewhere (unless all resources are fully renewable, which they aren't). Given how our economy works (or is meant to - it seems to be wobbling rather a lot at the moment), this ultimately derives from an environmental good of some sort - timber, oil or whatever - the impacts of which (deforestation, climate change, other pollution) tend to be treated as 'externalities' in economics i.e. they are not included as intrinsic costs. If they were, cheap disposable items would be a lot more expensive. The same goes for 'convenience' food and anything else which replaces our physical effort with work done by a device or process.

Now, I'm sure I'm not the first to notice this and I already know that extra packaging and energy use are involved in consumer goods (let alone the uselessness of many such goods in the first place) and more so if they are disposable, but it is the first time I've really thought about the fundamental physical inevitability of 'convenience' - we get nothing for free and if we don't do the work ourselves (whatever it may be), finite resources elsewhere have to do it for us, with the resulting impacts that entails. Of course, the above is greatly simplified - there are variations according to where my food comes from, machine efficiency and so on, and those involved in calculating carbon footprints, life-cycle analyses and so on will be familiar with such details. However, precise figures aside, 'convenience' = extra resource use.

OK, enough from me - I hope I stopped before descending into soapboxing waffle. Now those thoughts are out in the open, I shall be returning to the usual ecology next post...


Penrose, R. (2010). Cycles of Time. Vintage, London.

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