BIOMASS: Exploring Sustainable Fuel and Alternative Power

Living with waste causes hurdles that become unbearable as time goes on. The resulting greenhouse gases such as methane, a significant drive to climate change, and some other artificial chemicals would leave a permanent mark in the atmosphere, contributing to the much feared air pollution. On land, an increase in cockroaches and rodents would increase land pollution, gradually causing health issues for nearby communities. The harmful effects of these natural and plastic wastes are a bane to society, and although the majority of students and individuals worldwide see and dislike these effects, not many can visualize how well these harmful effects could be curbed through a bit of chemistry and engineering.

Ideas for how to solve our waste problem come in various shapes — with various levels of effectiveness. The idea that some of this waste will eventually rot continues to thrive in some communities, with some individuals suggesting that all waste will eventually decompose, no longer presenting a problem. Of course, some waste does rot but the process isn’t in any way pretty or beneficial to the problem. All of this could be avoided and even reversed if we could just reduce the amount of waste but also convert it into something usable, something valuable, something better than risking environmental devastation.

A close up picture of thin slices of pineapple waste mixed with other plant debris
Pineapple plant waste.

As a student, I was fortunate to work with a team of engineers on obtaining valuable products from the waste of fruit (pineapple in particular) through a bit of fermentation, heating and distillation. Our goal was BIOMASS—fuel that is clean and sustainable enough to reduce pollution while providing alternative means of power compared to conventional fuels like fossil fuel.

Biomass is a renewable fuel derived from organic materials and acts as an alternative for producing fuels, heat and electricity. Converting these waste to biomass is essential in producing cleaner fuels and reducing the pollution these waste build. 

We carried out a series of steps and chemical reactions before converting this waste to ethanol.The process of collection involved visits to any polluted environment with a significant amount of fruit waste in order to launch our experiment. We considered the amount of fruit waste to be a gauge of how high our ethanol yield would be.

Research, collection, and grinding

At first, gathering this waste could be unhealthy without taking into consideration proper measures. When working on this project, we used a nose mask to avoid inhaling the foul smell this waste produces, and gloves when gathering fruit waste.

To ensure maximum ethanol production, I worked with a group that researched the amount of alcohol in different fruits at different stages of decay. Ripe fruit waste usually contains more alcohol than their unripe counterparts, hence we used about 2.4kg of ripe pineapple waste retrieved from the waste site. We rinsed off excess dirt and germs with water in preparation for the home grinding appliance we later used to grind the peels.

Grinding this amount of waste mixed with 1.5 liters of water yielded small, moist chunks of pineapple waste which were separated by filtration in order to distinguish the solid chunks from the liquid. The resulting mixture was pure liquid which we termed “the filtrate.”

A digitally rendered image of three large silver cylinders connected as part of the ethanol distillation process
Ethanol distillation model.

Heating

The filtrate was heated for about 3-4 hours in order to produce sugar. This sugar content was measured using a hydrometer. The sugar syrup is then diluted and fermented using Sacchromyces cerevisiae (yeast). Diluting the sugar is a practice performed to prevent the sugar from killing the yeast. 10ml of this yeast was added and mixed with 100ml of 37°C water, then stirred regularly for 10 minutes, before finally being allowed to sit for 3-4 days in a sealed container at room temperature. At intervals, the mixture was manually agitated to ensure proper mixing and fermentation of the yeast with the sugar. 

Fermentation

During fermentation, our liquid produced heat through a gradual stirring process, which yielded alcohol. Research shows a 7-8% by volume ethanol production at 50-70 hours into fermentation, with some studies showing that an 80-100 hour fermentation would yield 8-9 % ethanol. This fermented product has alcohol present and while some use this for the well known Tepache recipe, our goal was ethanol production. With this in mind, our fermented product was heated and separated through fractional distillation, a technique used to separate mixtures of various boiling points.

Fractional distillation

Fractional distillation was only possible due to the difference in boiling points between the alcohol and water present in the fermented product. Definitely, the ethanol present would evaporate before the water due to its lower boiling point (about 78.37°C). The vapor passes through a copper pipe which is rapidly cooled and yields liquid as the end product (through condensation). This liquid is ethanol, although it could contain a bit of water if proper distillation wasn’t carried out.

From this experiment, we successfully reduced both air and land pollution in exchange for ethanol using fractional distillation, a biofuel that is ecologically effective and releases less carbon emissions when used in automobiles.

A long infographic titles "Our Plants." There is a cartoon picture of a tree. Underneath is the text "Here's what they do." Below that is a cartoon of spinning gears. The text reads "Processing of these plant residue (the more the plant, the more the product). Belong that is a cartoon picture of a flame. The text reads "Fermentation yielding liquid for distillation." Below that is a cartoon picture of a black car. The text reads "Distillation and power plant processes leading to minuscule amount of ethanol for automobiles." Below that is more text that reads "However, we can't use Earth's soil solely for biomass producation."
Sustainability cycle infographic.

Sustainability Analysis

But there’s a catch: When reaching our desires for economic, social, and environmental sustainability, there needs to be a valuable and reasonable amount of input to yield the same reasonable amount of output. Unfortunately, this was not the case when producing ethanol from pineapple waste. Our experiment showed that from a 2.5 litres of fermented pineapple juice, we could only obtain about 0.05 litres of ethanol, which is much less than the required amount to even partially replace conventional fuels. 

Continuing to work on producing ethanol with such low yields might mean the possibility of food shortage. The United States Environmental Protection Agency highlights that economic models reveal biofuel use can result in higher crop prices

The large scale ethanol production process is by no means efficient yet and a huge amount of money invested in developing efficient means might also spike the ethanol distribution costs — opposing one of the most adored reasons for producing bioethanol: it’s cheap cost. Our already occupied land and environment would have to be cultivated with a huge amount of crops from which waste could be obtained in order to produce a reasonable amount of ethanol that rivals or completely replaces fossil fuels. 

Our alarming need for transportation fuel alone rises daily, as explained by Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich of the World Resources Institute in their working paper. Large fossil fuel consuming regions have established ambitious biofuel targets that amount to 10% transportation fuel by 2020. If such targets were to go global by 2050, using 30% of a year’s harvest today would only produce about 10% of the transportation fuel needed, making a sustainable food future more difficult. 

We’d be sacrificing a valuable portion of the Earth’s soil to produce a somewhat minuscule amount of valuable biomass required to power our automobiles today. This cost makes the situation rather unwise for such an industrial project by large scale industries. Those same industries could emit large amounts of gases, causing minor water pollution. Although it’s still a debate, our pineapple waste experiment showed that we have not yet achieved the perfect alternative to fossil fuels we all wish for. 

A big power plant with a series of silver silos and long silver buildings. The plant sits on green grass. There is water in the foreground.
Ethanol plant near Mason City, IA. Photo by Jeff Easter.

Our Sustainability cycle

There is irony in the fact that such a simply-made alternative to fuel introduces a new set of such serious problems.

The waste that resides in polluted environments is not enough to produce a desired amount of ethanol for powering vehicles, and yet to increase these wastes for higher yields is unsustainable as well. Using the Earth’s soil to cultivate crops not for food but instead solely for ethanol and BIOMASS production causes its own environmental damage, along with the social issues of acquiring the land and not feeding populations in need. But the experiment which was carried out shows that ethanol production and waste reduction are possible — if not on an institutional level, then at least on an individual one. We can’t produce enough ethanol sustainably for entire regions, but hobbyists could make biofuel for their own personal use and reduce pollution in their society at the very least, making it a rural-based humanitarian service for people deeply affected by environmental pollution.

The Prospects For Limiting Nuclear War And The Strategy Of “Escalate To De-escalate” – A Research Note

The most recent version of the United States  Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), written in 2018 during the Trump administration, claims that Russian strategy “mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.” This strategy is encapsulated in the phrase “escalate to de-escalate” (E2DE), which may be defined as a strategy in which a state attempts to escalate a conflict with the express purpose of deterring further military action by the adversary and/or terminating the conflict on terms favorable to itself. 

At first glance, the E2DE strategy might appear to be paradoxical and counter-intuitive. How might a country go about escalating a conflict and de-escalating it at the same time? Nevertheless, many decision makers in the United States, including national security officials, assume E2DE  to be part of the current Russian nuclear weapons strategy. The logic of this strategy is as follows: If one side of a conflict employs a sudden or sharp escalation, i.e. the crossing of an important threshold or a dramatic movement beyond previous limitations, the other side may capitulate. Capitulation would occur, the logic continues, because the receiving state understands (after the dramatic escalatory move) that its adversary is more committed, resolved, and willing to escalate to higher levels of violence than the receiving state.      

A bald white man in a black jacket and khaki pants stands in the middle of a black and white checkered floor. He is speaking to a room of white men and women, who are all dressed in business clothing. In the background is a row of flags of the world.
U.S. Naval War College (NWC) staff members listen to a brief during a wargame reenactment of the Battle of Jutland at NWC in Newport, Rhode Island. The historical World War I naval battle was fought May 31, 1916, between the British Royal navy’s Grand Fleet, under British Adm. Sir John Jellicoe, and Imperial German navy’s High Seas Fleet, under German Vice Adm. Reinhard Scheer. The battle was later studied in great depth at NWC by Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and William F. Halsey, and helped shape U.S. Navy warships, tactics and doctrine in the years leading up to World War II. During the wargame reenactment, Rear Adm. P. Gardner Howe III, NWC president, commanded the German High Seas Fleet and retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, director, Naval History and Heritage Command, commanded the British Grand Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl/Released)

         The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review argues that the Russian assessment is mistaken, and yet the same E2DE strategy was a bedrock of U.S. and NATO policy throughout the Cold War. J. Michael Legge, a former analyst for the RAND corporation, explains the development and implementation of NATO Cold War nuclear strategy thoroughly in his 1983 piece. He writes: “The strategy formally recognized that if deterrence failed… NATO might have to resort to using TNW [Theater Nuclear Weapons] in a further attempt to end the conflict by convincing the Soviet Leadership that they had miscalculated.” If the U.S. and NATO assumed that E2DE might work then, why is faith in this strategy now a dangerously mistaken belief? Indeed, it is possible to argue that the strategy did work, as a deterrent strategy at least, since the U.S. and NATO never had to defend themselves from a Russian invasion of eastern Europe.

Other questions remain regarding the potential effectiveness of an escalate to de-escalate strategy in terms of deterrence as well as, more importantly in my view, in terms of what happens when the strategy is employed not as a deterrent threat but an escalatory attack. First, how prevalent is belief in the strategy’s efficacy among decision makers in the U.S.? Secondly, why (or under what conditions) do experts believe such a strategy might work? Finally, does evidence exist to support belief in the efficacy of E2DE strategy? My dissertation research seeks to answer these questions through a multi-method approach utilizing expert interviews, a survey experiment and a historical review of wargames and military exercises specifically related to the concept of limited nuclear war.

I argue that a majority of the U.S. strategic community believes that “limiting” nuclear war is difficult and unlikely but nevertheless believes the U.S. should develop specific strategies and capabilities for limited nuclear war, rather than simply relying on other deterrence strategies, such as assured retaliation or asymmetric escalation. I also suggest that a significant portion of the U.S. strategic community believes that nuclear adversaries embrace a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, I hypothesize that a significant portion of experts believe that the U.S. needs to have a similar strategy in response, both to deter adversaries as well as to respond in kind. Adopting this strategy is potentially catastrophic. If both parties to a nuclear conflict believe that escalation is a path to coercive success and war termination, a cyclical reciprocation of destructive proportions is a likely result.  

In order to interrogate this intuition, my first research question asks: What do U.S. leaders, experts and members of the United States strategic community, including decision makers in the nuclear command and control enterprise, think about the feasibility of conducting limited nuclear war? In other words, what are their beliefs about the ability to control and limit escalation in a nuclear war? I also ask how these experts think about the strategy of E2DE among nuclear powers. I plan to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews among members of the U.S. strategic community, which includes a variety of high-ranking military officers, civilian Department of Defense officials, think tank analysts, and other members of U.S. nuclear command and control organizations. Thankfully, due to my ongoing military service as an officer in the U.S. Navy, I have unique access to many of these individuals and my previous military experiences and contacts will be of great help in this research. 

A grey, cylindrical rocket launches into the air with a jet of fire behind it and two pillars of smoke. The rocket is at an angle and appears to be moving upwards away from the ocean.
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN 739) off the coast of California. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge

With a deeper understanding of the beliefs of this strategic community, the next step will be to compare those beliefs to empirical evidence. Are these leaders and potential decision makers correct in their assessment of the viability of such a strategy? 

I will investigate two different but complementary sets of data. First, I will conduct a survey experiment utilizing a hypothetical future scenario between the U.S. and a smaller nuclear power. In this experiment, respondents will represent the U.S. and will be asked about their preferred response when placed in a situation where the adversary attempts to achieve war termination through escalation, i.e. an attempt at E2DE. This will help me answer the question of whether or not the employment of nuclear weapons (detonation of a nuclear weapon to achieve some physical and psychological effect on the adversary) in a conflict makes escalation more or less likely than an equivalent conventional (non-nuclear) attack.

The next component of my study will address the question: What historical evidence exists from past wargames and military training exercises to support or refute a belief that a strategy of E2DE might work among nuclear powers? To investigate this question, I will conduct a historical review of wargames and military exercises conducted by the U.S. and NATO, and other countries where available, in the nuclear era (post-1945) to assess the relationship between conflict escalation and war termination, or the strategy of E2DE among nuclear states. A wargame, as defined by wargaming expert Peter Perla is “a warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operation of actual forces, and in which the flow of events is shaped by decisions made by a human player or players.”

My goal in this portion of my research is to examine available records of wargames and exercises, like Operations Sagebrush, Carte Blanche, and Able Archer, akin to what Reid Pauly, professor of nuclear security and political science at Brown University, did with U.S. wargames in “Would U.S. Leaders push the button?” In his piece, Pauly systematically reviewed past wargames with elite level participants as a research method to assess when and why leaders might choose to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. In my project, the universe of cases would include games and exercises in which deliberate escalations were perpetrated by at least one side, whether  use of nuclear weapons or other forms of escalatory attacks. I will be looking at instances where one side attempts to escalate to de-escalate, whether or not through nuclear attacks, and what adversary response and escalation dynamics occurred in the wake of this decision. 

A missile flies through the air. The missile is grey and cylindrical with two airplane wings coming out of each side. The side of the missile says "U.S. Air Force." The tail of the missile has a white star inside of a blue circle. The tip of the missile is white.
Boeing’s AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile © Reuters

As an example, in 1967 two very high-level politico-military wargame exercises known as BETA I and II – 67 were conducted by researchers and senior Department of Defense officials at the Pentagon. During these games, both sides, representing the U.S. and the Soviet teams, experimented with attempts at E2DE with both conventional and nuclear weapons. The attempts were only successful once out of the four tries made by both sides. The one successful attempt was accomplished with conventional weapons, with the nuclear attempts resulting in cyclical reciprocation ending in massive nuclear exchange. Numerous other wargaming records are available for similar analysis and may be able to tell us important things about the dangers or merits of escalating to de-escalate.

One advantage to this method is that in games where the debates and arguments around decision making have been recorded it is possible to gather information about how decision makers were thinking and what their reasoning was. As Pauly recently explained for the Watson Institute, crisis simulations are useful as research tools in order to “see problems in different ways, anticipate unintended consequences, generate unanticipated outcomes, pose new questions to ask, and reveal unknown assumptions.”
         My research agenda asks important questions, the answers to which are likely to inform decision makers’ strategies for deterrence as well as their likelihood of engaging in conflicts that risk nuclear escalation. As the United States, Russia, Pakistan and other states increasingly explore the idea of lower-yield, shorter range, high accuracy weapons for “tactical” or “limited” use, and update their existing nuclear arsenals (in some cases bringing back weapons systems previously retired), understanding escalation dynamics in a nuclear war is of the utmost urgency. My project aims to help the U.S. strategic community and potential policy and decision makers to be cognizant of their own beliefs, to be aware of available evidence to support or challenge those beliefs and to acknowledge the implications if beliefs and evidence are misaligned. At a minimum, these misalignments may result in inefficient use of limited resources. Of more concern might be deterrence strategies and policies that are ineffective and may reduce stability between nuclear powers. Most importantly, if leaders are wrong about the ability to employ nuclear weapons as a de-escalatory measure the potential consequences could be a devastating nuclear war, something which is clearly in no one’s best interest.

Indigenizing Colonization: How Indigenous Knowledge Can Help Us Do Better When Looking to Colonize Other Planets

When you think of colonizing a planet, your mind may turn to a science fiction-like existence: new and cutting-edge technologies you could never have dreamed of; humans living in enclosed habitats; and harsh, unforgiving environments that must be tamed in order to survive. What you may not think of is that humans have done it before—here, on Earth.

I am a member of the Shinnecock Nation and a planetary scientist. Originally, I saw my native identity as extraneous to my scientific career. How could my indigenous knowledge ever help me when researching a completely different world? But the more I delved into my work, the more I saw there were problems that could be solved using “Two Eyed Seeing”

Two Eyed Seeing is a term originally coined by Mik’maw elder Albert Marshall and introduced to me by Dr. Roger Dube, a Mohawk Native from the Rochester Institute of Technology. The term refers to using western and indigenous scientific approaches simultaneously. The indigenous approach to science places an emphasis on observation and working in a way that is synergistic with what the natural world already offers, while western science follows the typical scientific method of posing a question and conducting an experiment. Importantly, because of the focus on synergy with the natural world, indigenous science generally has a lower impact on environmental surroundings when used responsibly.

Multi-colored red and yellow corn on a black tabletop
The multi-colored kernels of the Bear Island flint corn planted during the experiment.

The inaugural manned mission to Mars is expected in 2024 for SpaceX and in the 2030’s for NASA, and with humans reaching the Red Planet we may be headed towards colonization. The first step to approaching Mars’ colonization through a more indigenous lens is to remember that we must view the planet as a living thing and as a provider. In many North American indigenous cultures, we refer to the land that indigenous people inhabit as “Turtle Island”, a term that harkens back to a creation story1 which describes how we live on the back of a giant turtle moving through the oceans. In that sense, while you have been permitted to live on this being, you must also respect it, for it too is alive. Mars may not be as prolific a provider as Earth, but there are resources there that can be worked in tandem with rather than simply exploited. We don’t have to be a resource-hungry culture going from planet to planet using up everything that we can and moving on.

Every kilogram of resources imported from Earth costs large amounts of money, fuel, and time to reach Mars. If we brought fertilizer and soil there, both highly dense items, these would be literally worth more than their weight in gold. Thus, the respect for the resources on Mars becomes important not only from a moral standpoint, but also from economic and logistical standpoints. On Mars, water-ice is abundant beneath the surface, especially in polar regions. It can be melted for drinking, daily necessities and other purposes. It can also be transformed into rocket fuel by splitting the water molecules into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Building materials found on Mars, such as easily accessible iron from meteorites on the surface and regolith,  could be used to build habitats with 3D printing. Through an indigenous approach we can learn to utilize these resources while sustaining them for long-term growth and future exploration. Traditionally, many indigenous communities in the Americas grew their own food, amended soil naturally and organically, and were able to create a self-sufficient, near-vegetarian community. Corns, beans, and squash, known to many tribes as “the three sisters”, were grown together in a beneficial, symbiotic arrangement quite different from the monocrop, non-rotational farming that is currently popular in the food growth industry. The beans added nitrogen back to the soil to be used by the corn and squash, the corn provided a pole for the beans to climb, and the squash served as a living mulch that fought off pests with its prickly texture. These three foods together rounded out the complete nutritional needs of a human, however they were not the varieties you are used to buying in a grocery store.

Twenty-four small green pots with white labels sticking out of their tops, all are placed in black crates
Each pot had two seeds planted in it. The pots in the foreground have Miraclegro soil, the next set has MGS-1, and the last set has MGS-1C (the global mars soil simulant with clay added).

Due to colonization and the forced removal of native peoples, as well as the assimilation tactics used, most tribes no longer grow their own food and many heritage species have been lost. The switch to grocery store varieties has seriously impacted native communities, especially those in “food deserts” where the reservation residents do not have a true supermarket nearby. The increased sugars in today’s varieties, along with low food budgets forcing people to choose less healthy options has caused an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, with rates as high as 60% among the adults of some tribes. Traditional or “heritage” indigenous foods are higher in nutritional value and many were cultivated to be resistant to various specific environmental conditions. These resistances were developed over thousands of years of seed selection for desirable traits and this work can be utilized and continued in an off-planet habitat where a unique and unfamiliar environment will allow certain seeds to thrive and become the newly selected seeds.

According to a talk given at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference in 2020 by Dr. Gioia Massa of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the current focus for food growth in a Mars habitat is on crops that can be eaten fresh or, with the future addition of a heating apparatus, staple crops that can be consumed with minimal preparation and cooking. While using the three sisters as the main crops may not be viable for the early missions, as the post-preparation needs of a crop are fundamentally important to optimizing astronaut time, the variety of each of the crops considered, as well as the production methods, can be scrutinized as well.

One method that would save significant transportation cost and would put us a step closer to future terraforming would be to use a direct sow method of plant production; in other words, to use the soil available on Mars to grow the plants. The general martian soil is not hospitable to plants; it is sandy, low in nutrients, and in some areas has high levels of salts and perchlorates which are poisonous to the emerging plant life. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas which may be hospitable.

My main research focus is on the geochemistry of alteration minerals on Mars, specifically on clays. Clays were critical for the development of early life on Earth. Clay particles provide a high surface area and protective layers for microbes as well as a high level of preservation potential. For this reason, they may be the best chance of finding possible traces of former life. Clays may also be the key to the proliferation of life on the planet.

Eight small green pots with white labels sticking out of their tops. Two of the pots have small green sprouts
This photo was taken just as the last seedlings emerged from the clay amended mars soil (MGS-1C). The two in pot 4 and the one in pot 5 emerged earlier on, but the single seedlings in pot 1 and 2 can just be seen poking out of the soil by this time. All germinated seedlings survived healthily to the end of the experiment.

With the support of my PhD advisors Jack Mustard and Jim Head, I decided to test the viability of growing heritage crops in martian soils, and to determine if the soils with a large clay component would allow for viable plants to grow. The plant variety I chose was Bear Island flint corn, which was traditionally grown on islands with isolated ecosystems by the Chippewa/Ojibwa tribe and was ground into meal and flour. This variety was recently popularized within indigenous communities in the Midwest by the tribal food sovereignty activist Winona LaDuke because it is resistant to drought, high winds, and contains nearly 12% protein, more than twice the amount as other varieties.

I planted the corn in three soil types: MiracleGro Seed Starter Formula (a control for comparison), Exolith lab’s MGS-1 (a martian soil simulant representative of the general martian soil composition), and MGS-1C (an amended version of MGS-1 that contains 40% smectite clays and is representative of the soil at the Mars Perseverance planned landing site). The corn was kept in a grow chamber at ideal conditions for corn growth (65% humidity, 16 hours of light, and 22ºC), cared for daily by the wonderful folks at the Brown Plant Environmental Center, and never fed fertilizer or other additives. Other studies that have successfully grown plants in martian soils have mainly added nitrogen based fertilizer, which would be extremely expensive to bring due to its weight.

The seeds planted in the MiracleGro had an 81.25% germination rate (13/16); they germinated in only 4 days after planting. The seeds in the MGS-1 soil had a 0% germination rate (0/16); nothing was able to grow at all. Interestingly, the seeds in the MGS-1C had a 31.25% germination rate (5/16) and ranged in time to germination between 17-21 days. The published germination time for this variety of corn was 9-14 days under normal conditions, and admittedly these conditions were far better than normal. The published germination time is significantly more than that shown with the MiracleGro soil, but less than that seen from the MGS-1C seeds.

Three clear plastic cases in a grow chamber each with eight green pots inside
The potted seeds were placed in a grow chamber in the Brown Plant Environmental Center which was kept at 65% humidity and 22ºC with 16 hours of light. The trays originally had plastic lids to encourage the seedling germination, but after they began to emerge in each tray, the lid was removed as to not inhibit growth.

In martian-type soil with a clay component, the corn was able to germinate. This means that we can use the soils present on the planet rather than bringing in other resources if a landing site with sufficient clay content is chosen. The benefit of using certain heritage plants is their viability in difficult environmental conditions. Corn may not be a crop grown by the first missions, but looking past the common plant varieties seen today and considering traditional heritage crops will still allow knowledge of indigenous food practices to be utilized. By using a direct sow method, the plants that are grown in these soils will begin to produce seeds more adapted to the planet, continuing the centuries-old practice of selecting plants for hardiness. . 

Other native principles, such as using all parts of a resource, similar to the zero waste movement today, point towards a sustainable cycle where we could use the inedible parts of plants to compost and rejuvenate the soils, or perhaps even use pre-composted human waste to add fertilizer and increase rates of germination and growth. Native people speak about building for the seventh generation. Mars will eventually be colonized, so we should take steps now to ensure that it will be done in a way that we can be proud of seven generations later. I believe that by considering the people who were most affected by the colonization that occurred on this planet, we can learn the lessons we need to effectively and honorably colonize another.

The Hebrew Bible from Below and Beyond

The Hebrew Bible serves as the foundation of several modern religions, from Judaism to Lutheranism. The study of this ancient text is a complex and multi-layered discipline, embracing methodologies from a variety of fields and drawing influence from as many places as it reaches. Bias in biblical scholarship is widespread, affecting both scholarly training and commonly used sources, meaning that certain viewpoints are often privileged over others. In particular, scholars of the Hebrew Bible often overlook the role of Egyptian historical actors and non-elites of the ancient world. One way to ensure the inclusion of such traditionally marginalized voices  is to employ socio-anthropological and historical-critical methods in biblical scholarship.

A green and blue map of the regions of ancient Israel with each location labeled in French.
The regions of ancient Israel (labels in French). Wikimedia Commons.

Scholarship of the Hebrew Bible focuses primarily on analysis of the Bible as a composite text,  a collection of originally independent stories combined into one document long after the historical period each tale claims to describe. One theory used to describe the text’s composition  is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This hypothesis posits the existence of four independent, original sources known as the Jahwist (Yahwist), Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly texts, which were later combined within the Pentateuch to form the Hebrew Bible as it is known today. Scholars argue that each of these original source texts contains a specific agenda and a particular perspective. In order to determine the cultural context which informs each individual text, scholars must choose what kinds of comparative evidence to foreground in their research, introducing another layer of bias into the study of the Hebrew Bible.

Many biblical scholars approach their research from the standpoint of either archaeological or textual evidence. The refusal to integrate the two approaches often means that scholars lack a complete picture of a particular text’s history, which might be achieved by using all the available evidence. Due to the standard path laid out for a biblical scholar-in-training, the most common sources for comparative evidence, both textual and archaeological, include Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and eastern Syria), and the Levant (modern Israel, western Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and southeastern Turkey). This choice of geography, made by generations of scholars, is predictable. Textual comparisons between the Hebrew Bible and ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example, are numerous. Yet the refusal to integrate archaeology and textual criticism into biblical scholarship, as well as the continued focus on comparisons with the Ancient Near East, has meant that the Bible’s connection to other ancient cultures remains under-scrutinized.

The author with a scaraboid he excavated at the Iron Age site of Tell Halif, Israel
The author with a scaraboid he excavated at the Iron Age site of Tell Halif, Israel

While textual comparisons with Mesopotamian materials are useful, it is important to recognize the potential biases of Mesopotamian authors. These writers likely represent elite scribal and political classes, with the requisite wealth and status to be exposed to language learning in an advanced professional position. But what about the non-elites? Do their lifestyles reflect the influence of the conquerors of their land coming from far-off Mesopotamia? To untangle this complexity, we must incorporate comparative materials from other cultures bordering the Levant and Mesopotamia to elucidate the lives and beliefs of the non-elites within ancient Israelite society. If the texts reflect upper-class biases, how can we discern elements of the lifestyles of non-elites, particularly those that are influenced by a foreign entity?

Foreign powers in the ancient world tended to display tactics of political imperialism, economic imperialism, and cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism can be used as a lens by the historian to examine the impact of a foreign culture upon all levels of society. In modern terms, cultural imperialism is most commonly used to describe the influential media of world powers, such as the United States, infiltrating daily lives and influencing cultures across the globe. For instance, the term was used recently by the president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in regard to Netflix. The term can, however, be used to discuss the ancient world, and provides an important framework for examining how foreign powers outside of Mesopotamia exerted great influence over the Levant during the biblical period.

My work on multiple archaeological excavations of Iron Age Israelite sites (c. 1000-586 BCE), primarily domestic areas far from ancient cities, suggests the value of new perspectives. Early on, I was struck by the absence of material culture in these sites related to Mesopotamia, in comparison with fairly regular finds of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, objects. While Mesopotamia is cast as the enemy in the literature of the Israelite period (c. 1000-586 BCE), the Levant was under Egyptian control during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200 BCE) and is simply closer to Egypt than to Mesopotamia. Why, then, do we continue to rely almost solely on Mesopotamian materials in comparative work when the archaeological evidence frankly demands a focus on Egypt? The reality is that, by the time the Hebrew Bible was being composed, Egyptian rulers had lost much of its influence in the region and was not a political threat in the minds of the biblical authors, except for a brief period in the late seventh century BCE.  Remnants of Egypt’s powerful distant past remain in the minds of the authors, represented in stories such as the Joseph novella.  Unfortunately, arguments about Egyptian influence on the Hebrew Bible tend to lead to meaningless debates, resulting in the few new perspectives regarding the impact cultural contact with Egypt and other neighboring societies on the people of the Levant and on the content of the Hebrew Bible.

The author at the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governor’s House at Beit She’an (Stela is a replica)
The author at the Late Bronze Age Egyptian Governor’s House at Beit She’an (Stela is a replica)

I argue that Israelite cultural identity is more closely related to that of Egypt, especially at the lower echelons of society. In fact, Egyptian-style scarabs, scaraboids, and Bes figurines are central to local Israelite domestic religion and culture. This is in stark contrast to the portrait of Israelite culture painted within the Hebrew Bible, which displays a gradual shift to centralized worship of YHWH in Jerusalem, particularly under the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah during the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This shift is, in my opinion, solely textual, based on the specific religious and political agendas of the scribes who authored these biblical texts. As members of the Jerusalem elite, the scribal school saw as its enemies the Neo-Assyrians and, later, the Neo-Babylonians of Mesopotamia, who threatened to overtake their position in Israelite culture. At the same time, however, Israelite domestic life amongst the populace continued to function as it had for several centuries. This continuation represented not the Mesopotamian culture that threatened the elites but rather a local identity that reflected many aspects of neighboring Egyptian culture, lingering after years of Egyptian rule.

The archaeological record displays Egyptian cultural imperialism reaching down even to the lower rungs of society. The prevalence of Egyptian, or Egyptianized, material culture, like the examples mentioned above, points to influences from the Israelites’ Egyptian neighbors which is not echoed by political powers in Mesopotamia. While biblical scholars will likely continue to use Mesopotamian material as a key point of comparison, we must be aware that influences from other powers such as the Egyptians and the Hittites may not always be reflected in the textual record.

I identify as a historian and scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, though many in my field would avoid such a title. Employing both literary and historical methodologies provides a framework for incorporating additional evidence into the study of this ancient text. I study the complex creation of the Hebrew Bible in conjunction with a variety of textual and archaeological evidence in order to reconstruct the historical, social, and political realities of the period. This extra-biblical evidence is extensive, including texts written in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, multiple stages of the Egyptian language, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and other languages that range in time period from about 3,000 BCE to the 1st millennium CE. By incorporating this additional material, I seek to understand groups that are often overlooked in traditional analyses but have important perspectives to offer on the historical context of the Hebrew Bible’s creation. Rather than continuing to search for comparative evidence in the literature of Mesopotamian elites, we must recognize the global character of the Ancient Near East as well as its deep local social networks of actors. Drawing on historical methods like cultural imperialism and focusing on traditionally overlooked cultures encourages scholars to think about the Hebrew Bible from below and beyond.