Constructed wetlands (CWs) are often mentioned as possible solutions to certain water pollution problems. They certainly are well-studied and reliable large-scale aquatic installations. Where there is plenty of land and no need to use it for other purposes, a CW can be a great ultra-low maintenance water polishing facility. They probably aren’t the right solution if you have a high throughput of water needing polishing, especially if that water has a high concentration of nutrients. CWs don’t really recycle nitrogen (it just gets “mineralized” into the atmosphere), and their effect on phosphorus is to accumulate it as an insoluble precipitate until there is so much you need to dig up and replace the whole shebang, maybe every thirty years. While I’m not opposed to CWs per se, I’m pretty much not a CW person, as I valorize area-efficient, energy-efficient, labor-and-capital-efficient ways to recycle as much nitrogen and phosphorus as possible, and I haven’t seen a way to get many of those requirements out of a CW.

But. What if you think of the CW not as a water polishing facility, but as an ore concentrating factory. One of the worst aspects of a CW, from the nutrient recycling perspective, is its accumulation of insoluble phosphate salts. Granted, you could call it recycling if, every thirty years when you need to grudgingly dig out all that accumulated sediment, you are able to recover that phosphorus, but it’s not like it’s a concentrated source. You probably couldn’t make a profit from it. But what if you could engineer the wetland to precipitate more than just an occasionally recycled fertilizer?

One problem with some wastewaters is their metal ion content. Many of these are toxins like heavy metals, while others are typical industrial metals, like iron. Indeed, iron was once harvested from natural wetlands, where the source water was high in iron and the chemical and biological environment of the wetland precipitated those ions out in the form of various minerals. Possibly you’d be able to design a CW to facilitate this process, although operating costs would likely rise. Many of the unwanted toxic metals, if present, would also tend to precipitate out in these deposits. The idea is to take a known natural process and facilitate it. This is what I do with algae – it already wants to grow, and with a little help it really proliferates. As with this algae process, you would probably have to sacrifice some specificity, as your ore production depends on what wants to happen, not what you want to happen.

Just as there is no landscape that cannot be improved by the presence of a horse (as some claim), there is probably no aquatic bio-process that cannot be enhanced by integration with algal turf scrubbing (ATS, the process I refer to, invented by my colleague and former boss Walter Adey). I’ve pretty much committed to ATS as my humanitarian contribution, so if I look into any environmental situation, I’m mainly interested in it only if it is ATS-integrable. No surprise, then, that if I were to look into improving CW, I would try to figure out what integration of ATS into the wetland process could do. Would I simply withdraw wetland water and discharge it back into the wetland after a single pass? Would I take batches of wetland water out and treat them down to the limit of ATS before discharging back into the wetland? Ultimately, if ATS is so great, maybe the best way to “integrate” ATS into a CW is to replace most of it with ATS, and surround the facility with a decorative screen of wetland.

Go Placidly Amid Your Poison Waste

Ground means real estate, but what’s this sacred? If it involves the blessings of some mystical ([being]s) who [(listen)s] to us and/or cares what we want, the word can’t well be used non-ironically. Sacrality is a feature of material reality. Whether we agree on that or not, I think it possible that we can agree that if anything at all is sacred, one hallmark of its sacrality is its affordance to all the ability to self-actualize, to pursue humanitarian projects (those that are positive sum (i.e. win-win)), or even zero-sum, for all who are averse to the kind of positive sum social outcomes I, and for some we, envision.

One hallmark of the profane, then, is an engendering of the negative sum. Denial or withdrawal of the mentioned affordances. Deprivation of health, healthcare, wealth (hallmarks of non-profane wealth, sensu this post, yea, this blog (perhaps I should start an official glossary-like hallmark compendium), include a maximum, set at a vaguely upper-middle class level), or bodily autonomy (yes, I am talking non-misogyny here). These are thereby profane.

Profane. Sinful. Punishable. A popular sacrality is that of real estate: sacred ground. In my experience said sacrality is usually expressed in terms of mystical concepts, whether abstract or credulous. But considering the prequel, if any ground at all is sacred, then all ground is sacred. Not that pollution is wrong, but laxity in dealing with it is. Profane. Sinful. Punishable. Failure to corral pollution, wanton habitat destruction, deliberate fact denial (agricultural non-sustainability, global heating, rising fascist tendencies with substantial financial support), these are all profane. Sinful. Punishable. Ignoring them, denying them, minimizing them: profane, sinful, punishable.

The sacred requires paying what it takes to safeguard our nuclear and domestic etc. landfills, and all other endpoints of our activities of global living, our rivers, estuaries, reefs, gyres. The whole fucking atmosphere, you fucking fuckers! Fuck you! God fuck you! I am ashamed that I must emphasize that that last sentence was not non-ironic. How hard is it to stop shitting in our own living rooms? It is a shame that I must emphasize that that last sentence was a metaphor. Do you really want another sneering quip? Recycling as much as techno-economically possible, containing the remainder, minimizing pollution’s land use and leakage (solid, liquid, gas). Restoration of degraded land to higher ecological functioning. To maximize sacral land, one possible desideratum: preserve all waste, and maximize its odds for future utility or upgrading. Store ideally all your poison waste….

Some hymns have great chords and cadences, some organists present them awesomely. The ones that require you to sing the least to (or about) some god-person are the better ones. But I cannot sing even the best of them with a straight face (“That Cause Can Neither Be Lost Nor Stayed”, which has excellent chords, cadences, and melodies). In high school I could (I sang Händel and was in musicals), but I lost that ability perhaps the very minute I settled on urbanity as my milieu. On the other hand, I am not averse to the word sacred, as related above. In fact, to the extent that what I mean by the word and that what you mean by the word have a large cognitive intersection, I am totally happy with singing some kind of hymn with you. I am proud to say that that last sentence was metaphysical. Perhaps it is a bizarre elaboration to note that I am a baritone.


If you made me the effectively immortal and locally omnipotent King of Mars, I would deny access to the Robert Zubrins and Elon Musks of the world, at least for thousands of years. My first goal would be to establish a magnetic field to stop the hydrodynamic stripping of the atmosphere. I’d hate to see all my efforts degraded. A solar powered electromagnet at, say, L1, would be fine, but if one could actually spin up a liquid core, that would be cool too. Then I would poison the planet.

That is, I would bombard it with iceteroids of cyanide (HCN), ammonia (NH3), and water (H2O). Well, the water isn’t toxic but the other two are. Hit Mars incessantly with volatiles. Other atoms as needed to achieve the desired balance. Get the atmo inside that triple point so that widespread liquid surface water would be available. This bombardment would pulse some frictional heat in – one could even disassemble Phobos and Diemos to create a hard hot rain, maybe even doing the same with some asteroids. Sill, sustainable heat retention would be necessary, perhaps a large Fresnel lens associated with the L1 electromagnet.

Create seas and lakes and streams and see if any Mars life finds that water and starts proliferating. Pump it down deep injection wells. I’m really only interested in using highly sterilized robots, which would build mines, refineries, and factories for indigenous, production of the necessary infrastructure. After a thousand years of terraforming and another thousand to search or wait for native life, I would start inoculating.

Algae cells and spores of ferns and mosses. Paulinella. By the way, when I speak of algae, I include cyanobacteria without specifying “blue-green” (Nucleus, schmucleus; photosynthesis and nutrient removal are my sibboleths). And look at Paulinella: a cyanobacterial symbiosis far more recent than that of the other eukarytoic photosynthesizers. Yet another alga to me. Heck even some non-oxygenic photosynthesizers like Chlorobium (not quite algae to me, at this time).

During this microbial and macrophyte proliferation, I would continue my embargo on surface humans. I want to see what evolution does under ambient conditions, sort of let things metaphorically anneal, before subjecting my world to the more directed attention of deliberate interventions. Create sort of an abbreviated, truncated, curtailed carboniferous era. I note that if a plethora of indigenous life erupts during the first thousand years of waiting, I might well delay my indulgence in terraspermia, and proceed most carefully when I do start, again with the goal of annealing, in this latter case with an “alloy” rather than a pure “metal”. Eventually, human settlement would be allowed. Again, much more carefully if there is indigenous Martian life. So, with a thousand years for bombardment and infrastructure development, potentially ten thousand for indigenous life development followed by another ten thousand of terrestrial plant life introduction, I might start adding animals, eventually allowing humans in.

What a spell. Lovely fantasy. Anyway, the more I think about it, the less interested I am in developing Mars for habitation. For exploration I’m not yet worried about surface contamination, but drilling disturbs me. I think I would ban it until we get really convincing evidence that we can do effective planetary protection.

Algae Farming

We’ve all seen algae: pond scum in ditches, seaweed at the shore, green slime in aquariums. Perhaps you already know that the word algae doesn’t refer to closely related organisms descended from a recent common ancestor (like mammals or fungi). Rather, it refers to the organism’s appearance and behavior (phenotype, not genotype). Essentially any aquatic organism that produces oxygen using sunlight and isn’t a green plant (which are closely related to each other) is an alga. They are ubiquitous wherever there is light and water; indeed algae are hard to eradicate. Consequently, if you actually want algae, it is easy to help them proliferate – simply make them feel at home. The only caveat is that if what you want is a specific strain of algae in a pure form, that can be rather labor and capital intensive.

Pedantry conservation notice: alga is singular, algae is plural. As with datum/data, some folks will insist that you say “the alga is” and “the algae are”. I instinctively align with this sort of prescriptivity, but stylistically I usually find it awkward. Know that I am aware of and am willing to live with that. I use algae as both plural and mass noun, depending on how it scans in my sentences.

But back to our topic: why would anybody want to farm, say, hectares of algae open to the environment rather than square meters of it in transparent containers (here I ignore seaweed farming)? Except as a source of some foods, lab products, and specialty chemicals, there’s not much of a market for it. Algae itself, at least as a bulk nonspecific biomass, the kind you get when you can’t be bothered to go to the effort to cultivate specific strains, isn’t worth much: more expensive than dirt, but only slightly more useful.

The value of growing algae arises from the cultivation process itself. Because algae grows so rapidly, it can be utilized to recapture the nitrogen and phosphorus, from agriculture and municipal wastewater, that pollute our aquifers and surface waters. Where this polluted water is otherwise unpolluted, the biomass can be used as a fertilizer and soil amendment. Phosphorus, a finite mineral resource, is especially important as it is the basis of our high-performance agriculture. Nitrogen fertilizer consumes something like one percent of global energy, or about four percent of global natural gas production. Algae growth also fixes carbon. Returning this carbon to the soil can help revive its fertility.

Working to expand algae cultivation is my chosen humanitarian effort (do you have one? What is it?). I favor a practice called algal turf scrubbing (ATS, invented by my former boss Walter Adey, emeritus algae curator at the Smithsonian), which basically creates an artificial stream ideally suited for algae growth. Push practically any surface water (fresh or marine), through one of these channels, and the algae simply proliferate without extra help. The stream can be as wide as you want; it might better be called an aquatic field. Frequently removing the biomass allows more algae to take its place, maintaining rapid growth and thus rapid nutrient uptake. The only problem (if that’s the right word) is handling the biomass. Even though ATS algae is pretty cheap, it still costs about $500 per ton to grow, costlier than the fertilizer it recycles. This situation is a failure of the so-called “free market”, ironically a form of socialism as it ignores or even denies the externalities of pollution and unsustainability in order to present as net beneficial. Governments and other authorities should compare the costs and effectiveness of all functional solutions to the nutrient pollution problem and implement regulations or simply pay bounties to implement the best choices. Obviously I think ATS will be a player in any such competition.