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Why Are Cows Sacred?
“From a fundamental biophysical perspective, both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them, in more affordable ways at lower costs and with higher efficiencies, into heat, light, and motion.” - Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History
I think a lot about energy. In the developed world, we are supersaturated with easily accessible energy. We’ve lost our visceral connection to it, at least in everyday life. Most of the time we don’t think about it in the slightest. We just plug stuff in, turn keys, press buttons, trigger sensors, board planes, eat and drink when we feel like eating and drinking, and go about our lives. That so many have this luxury is a relatively recent phenomenon, and not everybody has it yet. Nearly a billion people on earth still have a deeply visceral relationship with energy, living right at the edge of barely having enough of it to satisfy their basic needs. They think a lot about energy, because they have to, but ironically, we don’t pay much attention to them while we go about championing energy policies that ultimately impact the entire earth.
The relationship between life and energy is inseparable and, if you think long enough about it, that relationship (like all things) flows directly from the basic laws of thermodynamics. In particular, the second law of thermodynamics, which is a real doozy. There are lots of ways to communicate that law; here’s Wikipedia’s version:
The second law of thermodynamics establishes the concept of entropy as a physical property of a thermodynamic system. Entropy predicts the direction of spontaneous processes, and determines whether they are irreversible or impossible, despite obeying the requirement of conservation of energy, which is established in the first law of thermodynamics. The second law may be formulated by the observation that the entropy of isolated systems left to spontaneous evolution cannot decrease, as they always arrive at a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, where the entropy is highest. If all processes in the system are reversible, the entropy is constant.
The way I think about the law is a little simpler: disorder is spontaneous. Over time, closed systems will evolve to the state of highest disorder, which is why time has an arrow. Glass can spontaneously shatter to highly disordered messes, but never the reverse – it takes a ton of energy to turn sand into glass. In practical terms, your standard of living is a direct measure of how much energy you have access to such that you can temporarily impose order on your local environment – we all meet our maker eventually, after all, ashes to ashes, dust to dust and whatnot. Right angles don’t appear often in nature, but I sure have a lot of them in my house. Right angles represent order. It takes energy to build a house, but it also takes energy to maintain it. Abandon a house for a few years and see what happens.
To me, this is the real and powerful consequence of the second law of thermodynamics. Forget about growing, it takes continuously flowing energy just to stand still.
The core physiological needs of humanity – the base layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy – include clean water, food, shelter, and so on. Each of these things requires energy to procure and distribute, and not everybody on earth has enough access to the energy needed to have their basic needs met. This, despite our capacity to produce vastly more energy than we could possibly need, at least in aggregate.
As beautifully described in Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History, applying the lens of thermodynamics to the evolution of humanity and societies is a profoundly interesting approach. For millennia, humans struggled to gather, grow, and hunt for enough food to keep themselves alive. City densities were capped by the radius around which firewood could reasonably be procured. Direct human labor was a critical constraint and technologies that alleviated the need for broken backs were highly desirable, however slow they might have been to arrive and be widely adopted.
The earth is not a closed system, of course, and each day we are bombarded with vastly more radiation energy from the sun than we could ever require. Amazingly, less than 0.05% of the sun’s radiation ends up as chemical energy in plants via photosynthesis, and only the tiniest fraction of that number ends up in the subset of plants that humans can eat, at least when left to chance (i.e., before dedicated crop farming became a thing). Enter the sacred cow.
You can think of the cow as the first solar-powered rechargeable battery. Due to the miraculous nature of their stomachs, cows are capable of eating a far greater slice of that 0.05%, and are kind enough to convert that energy into milk, which provides astonishing nourishment with minimal human input, and excrement, which makes for fantastic fertilizer. Cows are also regenerative. A bull, a couple heifers, and some land represented priceless nirvana way back when. When a cow perishes, it provides its final gift: hundreds of pounds of nourishing meat. All hail the sacred cow. More meat should come from cows!
Eventually, everything changed with the extraordinarily consequential and utterly miraculous discovery of fossil fuels and how to harness them. Over a period of a few decades – which is practically overnight on the timeframe we are discussing here – motors could be powered to plow fields, pumps could be used to irrigate, and natural gas could be converted into synthetic fertilizer via the Haber process. Freed from the endless and all-consuming work of the farm, people started spending more time in school, the pace of innovation skyrocketed, engineering improved dramatically, and a stunning technical singularity followed which continues through to today. Energy is life, after all, and we cracked the code on a seemingly endless supply.
But not without consequence. With this progress came pollution, environmental damage, toxic chemicals, increased cancer rates, and so on. Those things are on the other side the scale from the bounty of life fossil fuels unleashed, and rightfully so. So too are concerns about how much CO2 we are pumping into the atmosphere and whether we might be causing irreversible damage to the planet. The supersaturated elite among us have decided we must constrict the supply of fossil fuels and force a transition to alternative sources of energy, which is fine, and probably the right thing to do, although I think we can be more nuanced about it.
Consider this thought experiment: what is the carbon footprint of the Super Bowl? Each year, some 1,700 players on 32 teams and all manner of coaches, assistants, trainers, executives, and so on, whipsaw around the country to play several hundred pre-season, regular season, and playoff games. Each game is attended by tens of thousands of spectators who transport themselves to and from stadiums. In 2019, 16.7 million spectators made this journey just for the 256 regular season games. At the Super Bowl itself, countless private jets fly in from all over the world, cities reorganize themselves, hotels fill up, and on and on it goes. That’s a lot of energetically expensive order, and it’s quite a luxury for a species that, just a century or so ago, could barely feed itself, let alone one that doesn’t yet fully feed itself today. Where on Maslow’s Hierarchy does watching a football game fall? Higher than the base layer, to be sure.
I hear no talk about re-prioritizing our energy bounty, just talk of restricting it. There will still be a Super Bowl in all scenarios, no doubt, but I suppose less people will eat? Are we okay with that? Or can we do better? How do we organize as a global society to more equitably pull the entire global population up the pyramid, distributing our energy bounty more intelligently? More fairly? More ethically? Yes, the transition to other forms will eventually occur, it has to, but can we do it faster? Smarter? Does anybody even bother to wonder?
I’m just a humble chicken. I don’t have the answers. These are complex questions, with deep political, cultural, economic, scientific, and yes, ethical considerations. Questions that are worth pondering.
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