Technomass versus biomass
There is no way to calculate the world’s biomass — the sum of all living organisms. Likewise, there is no way to calculate the world’s technomass — the sum of all the world’s non-living technology and technologically-created production (and non-organic waste). But one can safely state that the former is diminishing as the latter is increasing. We begin with a crude calculation that cannot be quantified even though we can insist (correctly) that the latter is increased at the expense of the former.
It’s not the numbers we are looking at here — though it would be great to know it if we had every phenomenon on earth under observation at the same time by the same entity. We know that the God’s eye view is of diminishing life and increasing technomass, but we are not God . . . so to speak. So why bother? What does the unquantifiable fact of an inverse ratio between biomass and technomass reveal? What questions does it raise?
First, we need to abandon our particular position (I live in the US, in Michigan, in Lenawee County, at my address) and pretend to fly above it all . . . to seek after those things that are out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind. Let’s study a piece of technomass — the automobile.
What an interesting word. Auto as in autonomous (self-propelled) and mobile as in motion . . . autonomous motion. And yet we know from physics that there is no such thing as matter in autonomous motion. The car appears to be moving by itself, and more so in the past when it was compared to a carriage pulled by a horse or an ox. In fact, before the term auto-mobile was popularized, these things were called “horseless carriages.”
This term is an example of out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind, about how the “imaginary center” appearance of something has the magician’s effect of concealing a menu of realities that brings that thing into existence and maintains it. It becomes a way of knowing, even though we know we have to fill the tank to make the car go, and even though we know the car is composed of many materials from many places, worked by many hands. It becomes a way of knowing that is a way of ignoring . . . or denying.
This is why we can honestly say that classical economics is actually a systematic form of denial. There are plenty of studies that attempt to calculate the carbon footprint of the average automobile, which is a measure of what comes out on the entropic-end of automobile use. They can tell you what percentage of greenhouse gases come from automobiles generally. They can tell you how many hectares of mature pines are necessary to reabsorb the carbon from one kilometer of car travel. They can calculate the difference in total fuel kilocalories consumed by a gas powered, hybrid, or electric vehicle, whether using oil or coal.
But we are looking at the car as a node of exchange, and in studying the car that way, we look at the exchange of negentropy (thermodynamic order — fossil hydrocarbons, e.g.) into entropy (thermodynamic and ecologic disorder) during operation. But we also analyze the construction and maintenance of the vehicle itself. That car is made of steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, rubber, timber, cotton, leather, plastic, polyester, polycarbonate, polypropelyne, tungsten, and all those minerals and precious metals mined in some other country, despoiling the land (environmental load displacement — an imperial fave), which have become components of automobiles. Labor consumes land for food, so the labor represents land production (biomass). Each of these materials is mined, or pumped, or harvested, or processed from what was otherwise extracted, which results in deforestation and erosion (loss of biomass); and each of those materials consumed a quantum of energy — mostly fossil hydrocarbons, resulting in air pollution (destruction of biomass and destabilization of biomes). Between each process (at each exchange node), there is transport of materials (and the transport vehicles are exchange nodes). The finished products are transported to various assembly facilities (nodes), whereupon the components assembled are transported to the final automobile assembly plant (nodes), and finally the cars themselves are transported to retailers (nodes).
Every bit of land/labor/time that went into the final product, as well as every bit of useful energy (negentropy), are now invisibly embodied in that automobile.
Every hectare of land used to feed the workers becomes a node for inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, water, seed, and petroleum for the machinery.
The general transport systems that facilitate the flows between nodes — road, rail, ship, or air — are themselves nodes through which flow materials and energy (negentropy transformed into entropy). We haven’t even begun to look at replacement parts, oil changes and other lubricants, refueling, specialty fluids, water and detergents for washing, waxes . . . the containers for the oil, the refinement and transportation of the lubricants, the pumps and sprayers for the water, the sewers to get rid of the dirty water, and so it goes.
It is the interwovenness of the general self-organization around existing power structures that makes our job — tracking flows and nodes of exchange — impossible to finish, as we noted in the beginning.
Nonetheless, we can give the lie to our day-to-day way of knowing, wherein we go to the car dealership, we see this shiny colorful machine, we exchange some money for it, and summarize the whole process with, “I got a good price on a car today.”
Money mystifies the reality, and our ability to see beyond particular exchanges (using money) to the larger picture where technomass is wiping out biomass. This is a zero-sum game, which is the thing no one in power wants you to know . . . but likewise a lot of “revolutionaries” still fantasize about techno-utopia. It’s part of a modern progress narrative.
Exchange, using money, narrows down our larger reality into a tunnel vision focus on the instant of a money exchange, to that thing called price.
Obviously, there are complexities beyond simply flows and nodes. The reason we go back to capture inflows and outflows is so we can mentally map those realities that we have been trained by money-culture to refuse to notice.
The reason mental (and actual) maps are helpful, as graphic representations, is they can help us get to a place that we cannot readily see in an instant by showing the many relationships between material things and forces that are mediated by culture.
We see from above with maps, so to speak, and we peer into the past for the restless ghosts that invisibly inhabit the present.
Let’s take this automobile, for which we have mapped a few flows, and follow it out. Ramify (from the Latin ramus, meaning branch) means “branching out.” When we speak of ramifications, we are describing those phenomena that “branch out” from a thing or an action — branching consequences. In this case, we want to study the ramifications of technology. We will focus here on just a few ramifications related to the example we used: automobiles (or should we call them oil-mobiles, since we know they are not autonomous?).
Well, we have to talk about roads, don’t we? Just for starters. Cars, even the high-clearance, four-wheel-drive behemoths, are not incredibly useful without roads. And roads undergo development alongside cars. The standard size of a road or even a parking space is determined by a window of standard sizes for cars and trucks. The US Interstate Highway system, built during the Eisenhower administration, was designed not to get you to grandma’s for Thanksgiving, but to speed up transport by tractor-trailer trucks. The bridge clearances are exactly high enough to accommodate those trailers.
We haven’t talked about dead animals, emergency rooms, land seizures, destroyed habitat, and blocked foot traffic.
This one machine, the automobile, has caused us to quit walking, so we can infer some health issues. We travel on our behinds. We don’t gaze around very much (and we ought not to text), because at the velocities we travel in cars, you have to focus on staying inside the lines to prevent crashing off the road, squashing pedestrians and critters, and colliding with oncoming traffic.
We moved from cities to suburbs because of cars. Suburbs are specifically designed as a kind of high-end barracks for people who work in the city, but who commute there by car. Markets have turned into car malls and car strip-malls with parking lots that take up more acreage than the building themselves. Service stations (with their in-ground tanks that will eventually be abandoned to leak into surrounding soils) and travel plazas and motels (a neologism for motor-hotels) are ramifications of a society built around cars.
There are political ramifications. In North Carolina, when I lived there years ago, there was a state Board of Transportation with nineteen members. One was appointed by the General Assembly’s Senate President Pro Tem, another by the Speaker of the House, and the rest by the Governor. A study of campaign contribution records showed a very strong correlation between appointments to the Board of Transportation and contributions to the governor’s election campaign. Roads were big bucks in North Carolina. The contractors who built the roads — some of whom were on the Board — got deals, a billion-dollars-worth. The land speculators who wanted to “develop” the areas around future interchanges got deals. The people who wanted to build service stations, travel plazas, strip malls, and subdivisions got deals. These were political ramifications of cars . . . and money.
Wars are fought for the fossil hydrocarbons that fuel modernity.
Meanwhile, as this dynamic drives forward (pun intended) like a juggernaut, technomass increases and biomass decreases . . . as does the biodiversity that gives biomes their resilience. I’ll leave readers to reflect on what all this means.