With this post I want to complexify some of the terms that are commonly used in discussions around Peak Oil, climate change, economic viability and sustainability.
H. T. Odum shows that not all BTUs, kilocalories and quads are created equal. Since these measure heat, into which all forms of energy can be converted, they are convenience measures. However, dilute energy forms, such as solar radiation, are less able to do work than highly concentrated forms such as gasoline, TNT and high voltage electricity. Collected wood has about 0.5 Fossil Fuel Equivalents (FFE) in terms of quality. Collected sunlight calories need to be concentrated at a rate of 2000:1 FFEs through plant photosynthesis. The ability to do work determines economic as well as ecological growth.
Furthermore, he shows that there is a typical pattern in successful ecological energy systems, where a portion of high quality energy is fed back to improve the quality of a low quality energy source of greater volume. This pattern can be chained to move energy up the chain. When calculating net energy, we should consider the quality of the energy, not just raw heat equivalents.
Mollison shows that resources are not all created equal. They can be categorized based on the effects of their use on themselves and other resources. Some resources when used degrade or destroy themselves. Some, like a skill or knowledge, improve with use. Others degrade if they are not used. Some resources improve other resources with their use. An example is the one cited above, where a high quality energy source improves a lower quality source. Some resources are neutral with respect to themselves and / or others.
The worst resources degrade themselves and others with use. The extent and reversibility of this degradation, destruction or improvement indicates another dimension in grading resources. So when we talk about resource yields from use we can be more specific by identifying the downstream as well as upstream costs of resource usage. This is a largely ignored aspect of energy accounting, and is almost nowhere captured in micro-economics (though sometimes captured in macro-economic analyses).
From the foregoing we can see that waste, too, is a matter of perspective. One man’s trash, and so on. Waste is in fact simply a resource that degrades itself or other resources when used or not used.
Concentrated livestock manure is a “waste problem” under the current industrial divisions and geographical separations of livestock operation inputs and outputs.Manure is rich in nitrogen, fosters soil organisms, generates heat, and acts as water conserving mulch when spread on fields at lower concentrations.
For this reason, Permaculture says “the problem is the solution.” Also we can see that any gross accumulation of a resource, not used by the system, is a form of pollution to the next larger scale system. By this definition, even money, when highly concentrated and not reinvested in the system becomes a form of pollution.