An Olympic Sized Metabolism
How human metabolism and social metabolism combine, continue to climb, and have left us in a bind
I’ve spent many a night this week watching the Olympics. I’m also trying to get back into running shape; which to me feels like training for the Olympics. It demands a lot of energy and patience, but also reaps a lot of rewards — like ice cream. But I’ve also been thinking back to the energy my family consumed flying across the country and then driving all over New England. We rarely give it a second thought, but we humans expend a lot of energy. And we’ve been doing more and more of it for some time.
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WINNING GOLD ON THE COUCH
I love watching athletes compete at the Olympics. The power and grace exhibited by the world’s best athletes is a wonder. I imagine burgeoning, and aging, every-day athletes around the world running, jumping, gunning, pumping, throwing, and rowing just a little harder over these few weeks – inspired by super-human performance. It takes an amazing amount of skill and energy to run 23 miles an hour over 100 meters; as the world’s fastest human, Usain Bolt, did in 2012.
To go fast requires generating force that is transferred from the body into the ground. Athletes competing for gold in the 100 meter dash create five times the force of their body weight to hit that those speeds. This week I watched Athing Mu win the first U.S. Olympic medal since 1968 in the Women’s 800 meter. I marveled at her ability to generate the required force to hit the speed necessary to both lead the race and win while conserving just enough to endure the full 800 meters (two laps around the track). This event is eight times longer than the 100 meter race, but Mu was still creating upwards of 3.5 times her body weight in force.
Sprinters spend more time in the air then they do on the ground. Generating 5 times their body weight in force requires them to lift their knees high enough to transfer energy through their feet and into the ground. Marathoners, in contrast, spend more time on the ground than they do in the air. They have to spread the necessary force to win running over 42 kilometers or 26 miles in two hours. To do this, they lengthen their stride to conserve energy thus minimizing the time their feet spend in the air. This excellent interactive piece by the New York Times breaks it all down with videos and graphs.
Having evolved from hunter gatherers, our bodies are tuned to conserve energy. We take well advantage of the first law of thermodynamics: in a closed system (like our bodies) energy isn’t created or destroyed, but is instead transferred. Metabolism is a good example. It takes energy from the food we consume and transfers it to energy the body needs to function. Our ability to sweat, while sometimes annoying and uncomfortable, is another example of the first law of thermodynamics. It gave us a sizable advantage over other species by cooling our body while tracking prey on the wide open savannah; or chasing down a competitor for an Olympic gold medal.
I too was expending energy sitting on the couch with my bowl of ice cream watching 19 year old Athing Mu dominate her competition. I was creating around 100 watts of energy just sitting on my butt, whereas Athing Mu would have been generating 20 times that at 2000 watts. Active humans moving about the earth expend an average of 120 watts of energy a day – enough to power a very bright old fashioned light bulb. But I was actually expending way more energy than Athing Mu. There was electricity powering my TV, my satellite receiver, and the amplifier powering my speakers. That says nothing of the triangulated satellites circling the earth, the equipment in Tokyo broadcasting the signal, and all the cameras, microphones, and computers needed to entertain me.
And what about the energy that went into my ice cream. The oil extraction for the fertilizer for the grain that fed the cows, the gas in the tractors that grew the grain, the trucks and trains that delivered the grain, the lights in the barn, the machinery for milking, the truck that picked up and delivered the milk, the cascading energy flowing through the steely factory that made the ice cream, the many trucks (and their refrigerators) that delivered the product, the energy to run the freezer and lights in the store, the energy in our car that drove to the store and back, and our own refrigerator keeping it cold. All so I could satisfy a craving for sugar while pressing buttons on my remote control. Sugar: a product that requires delivery on container ship from an island half in the middle of the Pacific half way from my home to Japan where the race was unfolding.
THE MEASURE OF PLEASURE
Simply sitting there I generated way more watts than an Olympian. Gold medal for me! In addition to our body’s naturally occurring metabolism, we’re all part of what is known as social metabolism. This is the flow of energy through and between nature and our global societies. In addition to biological ecosystems and metabolisms made of plants and animals, the globe’s human occupants have created an industrial ecology with its own metabolism. To fulfill our lifestyle industries extract natural resources, transform them into products and services, and we humans gobble them up. The more people on the planet yearn and earn the money needed to climb out of poverty and up the social ladder, the more energy and materials flow through the system. Just like animals, the more we eat the greater the waste; the faster the pace, the greater the heat. So, hooray for humanity, we’re winning the poverty race! But, boo for humanity, we can’t sustain this commodity consuming pace.
Commodity is derived from the Latin word commoditas which means amenity or convenience. Most commodities are raw materials extracted from the earth like oil, iron, or gas. But they can also be basic resources that are grown and farmed like the milk and sugar in my ice cream. Prior to the practice of agriculture, humans were left to feed off of the fruits of the naturally occurring landscape. They had to walk or run in search of their commodities. It meant having to spread out in small bands roaming the earth for basic energy providing resources.
But once humans figured out how to colonize plants and animals the amount of metabolic energy available from food became proportional to the land available to them. The practice of agriculture represents a fundamental shift in biological metabolism that occurred in select spots around the world soon after the ice age over 10,000 years ago. Within 1000 years the dispersed geographies of New Guinea, East Asia, West Africa, the Amazon, and the Andes – all places completely cut off from communication with each other – discovered the practice of agriculture.
They could also concentrate and conserve their energy within a designed and confined space. The more land they had the more food they could grow, animals they could raise, and time and energy they could spend on other things. This allowed for the invention of improved farming equipment, optimized farming techniques, and conflict resolution over available space.
Quantitative historians like Ian Morris and Jared Diamond study the intersection of resources, energy, and societies over time and narrow in on geography as a major driver of increased social metabolism. Morris documents his methods in his 2013 book, The Measure of Civilization. With empirically derived models, Morris landed on the premise that it was physical geography that determined the West’s rise in global domination more than the great White man’s intellect, religion, politics, or genetic lines.
Oxford Geography professor, Yadvinder Malhi, has taken the data Morris provided and calculated the social metabolism of societies over time. You might imagine a steady linear growth of social metabolism as nomadic hunter-gatherer societies morphed into organized agricultural societies, but the curve is more exponential featuring anomalous peaks and valleys here and there. There’s also evidence that the West indeed had a bit of a jump on the East stemming from the Mesopotamia’s initial forays into agriculture. (Morris considers Mesopotamia as West in his historical analysis) But once China latched onto agricultural practices 1000 years later, the social metabolism of the East and West more or less rose together.
But clearly the data shows something significant has happened in the last few thousand years. From roughly 2000 BCE/BC to today we see a steep exponential climb in social metabolism, from around 1000-1500 Watts per person to 2000-2500 leading up to the first century CE/AD and then a precipitous decline back down below 2000 Watts person. The decline halted sooner for the East than the West and then the East began to rise again as the West continued to fall.
In examining that period more closely we see social metabolism stagnated at around 2000 Watts per person from 500 CE/AD until the 1700’s when social metabolism began a meteoric rise – shown as nearly vertical lines on an exponential curve – to over 4000 Watts per person today. Shown together in the context of historical societal development, Malhi shows the peak of that metabolic mountain occurred in the middle of the Roman Empire in the West and the Han Dynasty in the East. But as both of these dominant realms declined, so did their social metabolism.
Around 500 CE/AD the data shows the West continued to decline as the East began to rise. Then, in 900 CE/AD, China’s Song (Sung) Dynasty emerged. There is increasing evidence revealing how much more advanced Chinese civilizations were during this era than in Europe. China’s national income was triple that of Europe in the 12th century as their population doubled over the preceding two centuries. By the end of the Song dynasty around the 13th century China had over 200 million people – the largest population in the world. Europe’s Middle Ages population peak is estimated to be only 75 million people.
THE HUMAN’S RACE
The growth of the Song dynasty led to the increase in cities, the invention of the world’s first paper money, and the decline of centralized governmental control of the bank. The first movable-type made of ceramics allowed for broad dissemination of knowledge and culture; as did the invention of the first compass depicting true north. Coupled with the world’s first organized and sustained navy and the first chemical formula for gun powder, it’s easy to see how China was a formidable power capable of expansion around the world. And a growing social metabolism.
Their growth came about through the expansion of commodities. They perfected the cultivation of rice in the regions of central and southern Song and created markets and exchanges that utilized early ripened rice from southern regions. Soon rice products and other foodstuffs could be created and sold as commodities in an economy that was expanding in numbers and complexity as the population swelled.
Malhi theorizes the decline and stabilization of social metabolism through the Song dynasty, and China through to the 1700s, was a limit on the land necessary to grow agricultural energy. It’s a plight that can be argued for medieval feudalism in Europe as well during roughly the same time period. Societies that enter into a metabolic limit become vulnerable to various economic, societal, and climatic shocks to their system. We are all witnessing just how devastating the spread of disease can be to a society; or how income inequality can lead to societal strife; or a single storm can wipe out 90,000 square miles of farm land creating $13 Billion of economic loss in a single day.
But humans adapt when our potential goes untapped. With the dawn of the 16th century came the European age of enlightenment and a shift in societal, economic, and intellectual dominance from the West. We also learned energy for fuel need not only come from the carbon stored in the wood that surrounds us, but from ancient deposits made of fossils buried deep in time and in the ground. The industrial age introduced fossil fuels — a source of energy more dense than any society had ever experienced prior. And today, a quarter of the way into the 21st century, we still rely on oil and coal to fuel a seemingly insatiable appetite for increasing social metabolism.
But things are changing. This week the Wall Street Journal reported banks, including Chinese banks, are curtailing funding for new coal-fueled power plants in countries like Viet Nam and Bangladesh. However, within the borders of China and India — the world’s largest populations of rising social metabolism — they still have plans to expand coal-fueled power plants.
And while oil companies are enjoying their biggest profits since the onset of the pandemic, they’re deciding not to invest this windfall in additional oil exploration and refinery expansion. Facing pressure from investors, they’re instead assessing the shift to renewables. While predictions of peak-oil have stymied prognosticators since 1919, perhaps we’re entering a time when the market will decide when enough is enough.
Speaking of predictions. I could have predicted the U.S. men’s 100 meter relay team would have not made even the semi-finals this week. A country (and sport) known for its individualism, our U.S. Track and Field organization routinely struggles with coming together to run as a team for the Olympics. The great American sprinter, Carl Lewis, agrees in a Tweet he issued just after the race while coaching some young amateur athletes.
It wasn’t so much a matter of metabolic performance, these were some of the fastest and physically trained men on the planet, but it was a matter of failed hand-offs in the transition zone. You lose the race if you can’t master handing the baton to the next athlete on your team. Any relay athlete will tell you that and it requires a lot of discipline and practice.
Looking at the data and analysis Morris and Malhi provided, each generation in the East and the West, from the 17th century to today, have successfully handed the baton to the next generation in a progressive race of growing industrial and social metabolism. With the help of historical and predictive modelling, many historians, climatologists, and ecologists have identified the finish line of our biosphere. We’re all a part of a generational relay race and the finish line is fast approaching. Let’s all do future generations waiting to run their leg of human endeavor a favor and not botch the hand off.