Recycling Humans?

Chemistry as it applies to the human population.

Recent bush fires in Australia have had me thinking down some very black roads.  Some related to politics, capitalism and how the world could have been better if we had taken advantage of different “sliding door” moments.

I have reflected on climate change, sustainability, the death of native animals, destruction of houses and communities. I thought about the moments in history which have led us here to this time and place.

…And then I got to thinking about thermodynamics. About available energy and matter.  The fact that there is a finite number of atoms on this Earth.

The big question in my mind then became “How many people could live on this planet without ruining it?”

As a chemist, I have studied closed system reactions. Our earth is essentially a closed system.  A closed system only has a certain number of atoms available so once you use them up the reactions have to stop. Rearranging atoms usually uses up energy. Energy is also limited.

These limited atoms are used to make up all the things on Earth including humans. There are an estimated 7,656 million people on the planet. Let’s say the average mass of a human is around 80kg. That’s 612,480 million kilograms of humans. (1 kilo = 2.2 lbs)

If we wind back the clock just 300 years to the 1700s, the estimated upper limit[1] of the human population was 680 million. That means there is an extra 558,080 million (558,080,000,000) kg of human flesh on the planet now compared to then.

Most of those extra kilograms have come from other living things in our closed system because we eat them.  There has to be a time when we simply run out of atoms and energy to keep making more humans. The majority of the energy we are using now has come from the stored energy of ancient living things – a.k.a fossil fuel.

While some of the atoms in current humans may have come from recycled humans (i.e. the return of nutrients to the soil through decomposition) most of the time we don’t generally “recycle” humans. We put them in sealed boxes in burial grounds off-limits to agriculture where the nutrients can not be returned to the system. Cremation adds to the carbon in the air.

We waste and misuse so many resources. As consumers, we salve our conscious with the catch-cry,  reduce-reuse-recycle, but that is unlikely to be enough to stop or reverse climate change.

Is it time to stop being humans who recycle to humans who are recycled?

Is it time to start thinking about burial practices so the nutrients in humans are available for other uses? I’m of course not the only one thinking about this sort of thing; burial trees pods have been mooted for a while.

It’s all sounding like Soylent Green may not be such a bad idea after all! By the way, that movie, where people were recycled to make food for other humans was set in 2022.

I also believe that those of us in developed economies, who use a lot of resources, have a moral imperative to reduce the number of children we have. We need to seriously consider limiting our population through natural attrition so that some of the atoms can be returned to make other things.

Instead of “one [child] for mum, one for dad and one for the country” how about just one for the planet?


Somewhere in between…

This month I am visiting my daughter who lives in an apartment in Be’er Sheva, south of Tel Aviv. While individual living standards will vary widely in any country, Israel would be considered a “first world” country. You can drink the water straight from the tap. You can turn the lights on with the flick of a switch and there is hot water, really hot water as it turns out. The solar heated water can be boosted with a ‘boiler’ for a quick-heat option in the morning or when it’s cloudy. In the absence of a thermometer, I am guessing the water comes out at around 70C – 80C. No temperature limiters here.

The council collects the garbage regularly. Apartments don’t have individual bins but rather one large community bin and recycling facilities shared by 5 or so apartment complexes. I am not sure what happens for stand alone houses. One positive of this system is that you don’t have a big line up of separate Sulo bins clogging up the roadways.

The downside is that rubbish that does not fit into the big pit garbages, like building waste, green waste etc is piled up all around them in the street until it is collected. These piles are very tempting, dangerous playgrounds for my grandson who finds it hard to resist the bits and pieces of wood, wires and broken windows, setting this grandma into a tiz of “be carefuls” “watch outs” “Oh no – don’t play with that!!!!!….(broken fluorescent tube)”

Demolition? Is that an electrical cable above that digger?

The streets are swept each morning, but litter abounds, as does dog poo! A walk in the evening is an obstacle course as you navigate around the poopy piles. No poles with plastic doggy-doo bags are provided and it would seem people do not bring their own pooper scoopers. Despite the rubbish, I have yet to see a rat or a cockroach. It would seem the street cats do a very good job of keeping away these pests.

Australia has a definite “nanny state” feel that is absent in Israel. It’s difficult for an outsider like me to work out whether there are less rules and requirements or if they are just not enforced. The best evidence of this is seen in the very different approach to building safety. Electrical wires and telephone cables festoon the outsides of most apartment buildings and make things look “interesting” and to be frank, dangerous.

Bike helmets for push bike riders appear optional, even for children Sticking to the speed limit and allowing adequate room to change lanes is very optional and apparently inconvenient! You get tooted in the slow lane even if you are sticking to the 120 kph speed limit! Heavy rain does, however, garner some respect with drivers slowing down to 80 and using their hazard lights. (Thankfully!)

Shopkeepers are direct and to the point. Their manner seems abrupt and terse if you are used to the “have a nice day” attitude we get in Australia. Don’t expect service with a smile – it’s not part of the culture. They are not intentionally rude it’s just how it’s done here. It’s a pleasant change to be able to walk around a shop and not be hovered over while you repeatedly declare yourself to be “Just looking thanks”. On the other hand, when you have decided to make a purchase it would be nice not to wait while they finish their phone call or chat with their fellow workers.

Australia is too regulated with many safety decisions taken out of the hands of its citizens. For example, in NSW, hot water heaters MUST be limited to 55C. If you want hotter water for a special purpose you’ll need to boil it in the kettle. Hence, the onus for safety is taken away from the person using the water. If you know the water is hot you should be careful when you use it – not expect the government to take responsibility of every aspect of your life. It abrogates our personal responsibility to keep ourselves and our families safe.

This map, although nearly 15 years old shows a big difference between the rate of accidental childhood injuries in different countries. Israel is in the +45 per 100000 category. Australia at the other end. of the scale.

Perhaps we do need the safety net?

Where is the answer?

In my opinion, Israel could do with a few more by-laws and regulations and Australia could do with less. People could clean up after themselves and their dogs. The combination of fast drivers and helmetless kids worries me. Australians should take more responsibility for themselves.

The answer, like with most things lies somewhere in between.

(Prepared on my iPad- sorry if the photos turn out skewiff!)