terence preston yorks

Ongoing Projects

   This page shares several continuing attempts to understand our world, somewhat less formally than what is sketched within my experience or publications pages. These creative examples tend neither to have found publishers for most of their results, nor the effective collaborators to opimize their wider utility. Each has aspects, nevertheless, that have already produced substantial value, and could do much more.

Categories:  Research /Art / Teaching

Discovering the most comprehensive set of consequences from human use of energy and materials [Modifed from my currently emerging memoirs]

   My Ph.D. program at Texas A&M University in 1972 targeted ongoing human hunger around the world, with an approach that had begun to include the cumulative environmental consequences among alternative strategies. Its encompassing background was the seemingly inexorable, and in too many places exponential, rates of  human population growth, whose multi-level effects were being magnified almost everywhere by careless uses of fossil fuels and other natural resources. During this all too brief spate of serious widespread notice, a confluence of interests while exploring what possible alternatives might apply to food production led to finding that there wasn’t much in the college library at that time about utilizing solar energy, at least beyond keystone photosynthesis.

   Given that lack, after putting together a set of working hypotheses about a logically promising approach that could apply not just abroad, but also to a resource of local importance, convinced my bosses to send me to the annual meeting of the International Solar Energy Society, that year being held in Gainesville, Florida. The trip had been targeted to check out what the latest light-concentrating possibilities from that most natural energy source might be, but ended up provided little in the way of immediately useful tools. Instead, it provided fascinating interactions with a rather small group of experimenting mavericks, along with several quite entertaining (albeit coincidental) extracurricular tangents. Most important among these was a presentation during the formal part by a NASA scientist, at the time the Society's president, which would most resonate with increasing depth through the rest of my life. The iconic moment arose when he put up a graph suggesting that seemingly ever rising American energy consumption was already intersecting with the net total utilization by all photosynthetic fixation from solar energy, summed across all the plants growing inside our national borders.

   Perspective for recognizing the importance of this striking numerical observation came from having grown up in the center of the historical Iroquois territory, then in the midst of classically heavy industrial pollution, with that thoughtlessness taking place among struggling regrowth from a centuries-old, quite thorough rape of what had been a slowly productive land. As the surface vegetation, especially outside cities, still often looked green and attractive, I had not fully realized the extent of what had been, and had been done to it until reading the graphic descriptions of the forests and their destruction in James Fenimore Cooper's "Leatherstocking Tales". Revealing the comparatively devastated surroundings had been experientially confirmed by traveling far enough to have seen in person examples of what clear air, water, and natural growth capabilities indeed had been, and might approach again. Among my more recent reading had been Limits to Growth, Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb, Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology, and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. These books' essences made particular overall quantitative sense within the rest of the deep scientific education that I was in the process of completing.

   Whenever one looks deeply enough at natural systems, there were always absolute constraints, with associated thresholds before irreversible changes begin. These exist, at no matter what the scale examined, among even the cleverest of assemblies in our theoretically infinite universe. At that particular moment, political movements had been appearing to do something about their piecemeal underlying issues, even within the highest levels of government, which were accelerating in hopeful parallel to those against military idiocy, in which I had so actively been participating. What was consistently missing from among these analytical pathways had been a more definitive and quantitative equivalent to the red-line for engines in the fine automotive machinery, which I was increasingly starting in a very practical way to understand, or its parallel "never exceed speed" for aircraft, an overall stress level when critical structures become too likely to catastrophically disintegrate. Within that one graph in 1972 was revealed his warning about could be called a similarly integrating and conclusive "green-line" for our planet.

US energy use versus natural flows

   That particularly quiet-spoken man had started this presentation with cumulative observations of how heat island effects from cities were measurably affecting local weather patterns, using extensive data that he had assembled from his own studies in the St. Louis area. Immensely greater masses of buildings and pavement made from concrete or other heavy materials had replaced the dramatically less dense, long-evolved complex of native vegetation that had for so long covered the ground near that city's center. These heavy human constructs added their heat-absorbing and storage characteristics to their more directly active releases of burned fuels supporting and exhausting as heat from air-conditioners, artificial lighting, and vehicles. The sum of energy transfers from these changes already had raised typical central city summer temperatures by as much as ten degrees, relative to what they had been under natural vegetation, with those differences especially noticeable at night. That combination of human activities was reaching further out, as well, to demonstrably be changing cloud cover and precipitation, with its pattern of differences reaching both far overhead and many miles downwind.

   Those clearly proven changes led him also to wonder about still wider scale impacts.  From that contemplation, he straightforwardly had realized that if total releases of energy by humans from fossil fuels even came close to the sum of natural energy flows—and more certainly if they began exceeding all of what nature had been processing—this would represent a clear threshold. It would be one that the entire planet, including all the life forms upon it, would regret our pushing across, since natural photosynthetic fixation and its processes had evolved over so many years to create a total that logically represented the most stable overall level of interacting with incoming solar radiation, as it was reaching ground levels, within the plants' overall constraints from interacting locally with other available natural resources.

   The graph above is my reproduction of the summary sketch that he presented, refined by subsequent government calculations for energy flows, and overlaid my own estimated total for combined harvests of solar energy by nature and agriculture. Each of those additions confirmed the simplified estimates that he had presented separately. A further extrapolation for the natural part of this summary would become that its underlying processes represent a four billion year practical experiment with possibilities, and this center is the result that worked best. In the background as a conclusion is that there was quite simply an absolute upper limit for the energy that the Earth's life functions could absorb on an annual basis. This long ago should have been and be obvious, yet continues consistently overlooked, on paper and in other forms of thought, but not by nature.

     His specific conclusions in 1972 reiterated how current, clearly unsustainable, energy and material use patterns were undermining long-evolved, environment-stabilizing feedback mechanisms. The global results of these changes could rapidly become wildly variable, with their more immediate side effects having already become quite visible and measurable. Ever increasing overall costs for obtaining fossil fuel supplies should begin reflecting practical difficulties in finding or delivering more. Those difficulties just added to others from end uses, all being accompanied by consequent pollution, of many forms, often less than immediately obvious. Each was leading to magnified health effects, although most were quite insidiously difficult to trace. On the other hand, all of these problems were unavoidably directly connected to utilization rates, and, though unsaid at the time, the critical total could not be meaningfully affected by simply shifting energy sources. By extrapolating from the well-proven local examples, he was already quite clearly suggesting what would eventually become tagged as “global warming”, among other vital related issues. His blockbuster was finishing by explicitly stating that Americans needed to reduce our energy throughput by fully 90 percent.

   The speaker’s name was W. R. Cherry, whose image is at the center of a quick shot I made at that meeting

W. R. Cherry

   Curiously, given how clear the message seemed to us (he and I) at the time, there seems to have been no formal publication of what continues to be such vital information. It faced the same conundrum that has bedeviled others: through what medium could it be shared effectively, and even if set down cleverly, what kind of perceptivity is required to appreciate it?

   Even without controversial titling, sufficiently widely disbursed energy use, from any sources at near or greater than natural levels, must eventually surely have serious effects at the planetary scale. This was quite obviously critical to him, adding immediate further credence for me to others' warnings that humanity needed to dramatically change course. Paul Ehrlich recently, like Malthus long before him, had captured some national attention with how population growth threatened human survival, but sadly enough, like his historical predecessor, had featured overly dramatic conclusions with short timescales, and with those too tightly limited to food supplies. This made too easy for them to repeatedly be sidestepped by temporary stopgaps, which have included immigration to less overpopulated and/or seriously damaged areas. Despite those being never, and more surely now, no longer effectively infinite, their wider pressures continue to be too diffuse to visibly connect for the functionally ignorant, and therefore routinely dismissed by those with the most power to change their own, and others', behavior.

   Cherry's subtle presentation, instead, had uncovered something more profound, albeit insidiously appearing, more slowly and unpredictably in detail for results obvious enough to sufficiently catch public attention, especially when potential attention was being dominated by assumptions and immediate profits derived from staying the longstanding, ever upward behavioral course, aside from the brief correction following the "energy crisis" later that same year. A conceptual complexity of deeper truth is even more difficult for most to grasp, particularly because it contains mathematical elements beyond having to wait in line when the Arabs for a moment effectively cut back supplies. Cultural problems in perception nevertheless neither change how the underlying facts continue to be increasingly dangerous for almost all known forms of life, everywhere on this planet, nor how they serve as a multiplier for other consequences from continuing human population growth at exponential rates.

   My own subsequent work expanded Cherry’s sketches in many ways. One summary appears below, with its information from at least somewhat more complete data sources for what has happened since with energy flows. Within both of these particular graphs, I have also included a suggestion from personal and others' research that, since humanity keeps reducing the area in wherein natural systems can operate, it is simultaneously removing essential components from the rest, overall biological productivity has been declining proportionally. This decline may well be steeper than I have estimated, since appropriately detailed inclusive data have never been collected from the field. Meanwhile, from solid data for smaller areas, the brothers Eugene and Howard Odum had calculated in the 1950s that, if stable ecosystems were to be maintained, animals could consume at most ten percent of their annual increment in plant biomass. Humans remain as just one species among these.

continued US energy use versus natural flows

   Through the interim, Americans’ total use of energy almost certainly exceeds the governmental estimates on which these summary charts were based. By no means all the associated wastefulness during energy production and use are have been included in the statistics from which they are derived. Since 2000, with the insanely destructive expansion of fracking, the "mined" curve has risen more sharply than the imports, with the stupid wastefulness tied to it including burning more natural gas to provide electricity, in that process losing two thirds of its original heat value, merely to be turned back into heat at the user end for clothes drying, cooking, or simply warming spaces excessively.


   In retrospect, these contentions fell ever more logically into place in the years that followed. These would become increasingly compatible with other data, some directly monitored, even though most remains rather thinly available. Powerful people do not want these either to be collected more effectively, or more fairly analyzed. Getting even such pointers as these more widely into either the scientific community or the public eye is anything but easy, as would be repeatedly underlined by subsequent bitter personal experience. The breadth of these concepts does not fit easily into common formats. When they briefly might, paralleling what the Club of Rome was publishing in the late 1960s, they would too soon sink from view, despite increasing confirmation of their underlying ideas’ accuracy.

   Waiting for inspiration on how not to overreach led even my own formal report from the meeting stuck to the more mundane progress reports about solar technologies. For the wider issues, I expected that similar conclusions would soon be expressed in some other context, since they seemed so clear that others more talented and well-known would be clearly publicizing them. Sadly enough, the issues have continued as too difficult to express briefly and/or in a way that is readily graspable by those without the requisite technical background, and too readily arguable in their details by those who do have that.

   On the other hand, as an integral part of further hypothesis testing, I have been acting upon Cherry's message at the personal level, honing in on practical details, and trying to provide examples towards being able to stay within the lessened energy use that he had calculated was so necessary. At least this process has turned out to have many very practical values. By becoming more thoughtful with energy and material use at the daily choice level, the requisitely more attentive lifestyle has not just coincidentally become notably quieter and otherwise more comfortable, just as many other astute researchers looking into practical compensations from increased efficiency have predicted, and similarly proven, though too often neither recognizing nor publicizing this connection. Meanwhile, all around me, the more commonly found wastefulness is surrounding us all, both inherently and increasingly noisier, as well as unnecessarily much more costly in so many ways.

   It remains truly tragic that in the end, the process of taking even a little more care with resources consistently allows one to create a net result of additional beauty and overall satisfaction. Attention to one's own impacts is one place where more continues to be better still.


Among the more specific projects that continue to evolve --

   ...  and on to art  ...

Rbt Earl Keen 4th of July CD cover photo

Overlooking Trondheim

Status:  images integrated with text; more than half printed as fine quality examples. Searching for a quality publisher. A CDROM version, with full-computer-screen-sized images, is complete.  Contact the author for more information. The Nordkapp visitor center at 14:30, 11 February



  •  A Photographic Portfolio
    A few more of my images, including several from the Norway book, are now posted in a collection.

    Status:  Viewable, with fuller quality prints and use permissions available.





    Other more or less completed efforts


    intended for wider, albeit scientifically literate, audiences,
    but have not yet found a formal publisher

    draft of  
    2016 Long-Term Trends With And Without Grazing In The Sagebrush Ecosystem In Wyoming. Yorks, T.P., Fisser, H.G., Laycock, W.A., and Capels, K.M. [low resolution version: 642 kb file]
    2016 Long-Term Trends With And Without Grazing In The Sagebrush Ecosystem In Wyoming. Yorks, T.P., Fisser, H.G., Laycock, W.A., and Capels, K.M. [high quality resolution: 52 MB file]
    2009 Effectively Comparing Land User Impacts. Yorks, T.P.
       [begun in 1994; submitted to various possibilities as it evolved]
    2009 Reducing energy consumption by 90%, with increased comfort. Yorks, T.P.
      [submitted to Orion in 2005]
    2016 On Prairie Dogs and Coexistence with Other Species, Yorks, T.P.
       [originated in 1994 and submitted to various possibilities as it evolved]
    2004 On Lightening Aircraft, Yorks, T.P.
      [submitted to the VP at Boeing most associated with innovation; received not even a reply]


    Yorksite Home Page / Education / Experience / Publications / Quotations / Slow Blog / Photographic Portfolio / Web Trolls

    Keen cover image by Michael Sabin, © 1974, modifiied by Arista Records, © 1997;
    other images, text , and site design © 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2017 by Terence Yorks (contact), all rights reserved;
    further distribution or postings in any form without written permission is strictly forbidden

    page updated 22 April 2018