Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Earth's Resources Can't Keep Pace with Us!

Many of the planet's resources are running increasingly and alarmingly scarce, especially petroleum ("oil"). Water, land and fish will also be unable to provide enough to match our growing human appetite for them. Gas and probably coal will begin to feel the pressure of our demands for them within foreseeable decades - coal is hard to predict since its true reserves are poorly known (see the posting "Peak Coal by 2025", which is the conclusion of one recent study), but peak gas is likely within 20 years or so after peak oil, and that may well be already with us. If everybody living on the Earth (around 6.5 billion of us) consumed resources at the rate of the world's richest nations (US, Europe and Australia), we would need to provide six times the present level of them, and should that population rise to 9 billion as it is predicted to by 2050, the demand would be ten times as great as it is now.

It all makes a nonsense of the unprecedented industrial expansion currently being forged in Countries like China, India and South America, all in the pursuit of a Western lifestyle, which even the West can no longer afford. Something will give, and soon, and most likely the weakest link in the resource supply chain is oil. The per capita area of productive land needed to provide one American with food, water, accommodation and energy is about 12 hectares; for an average Australian it is around 8 ha, close to that for a typical European. However, the mean per capita area of productive land held within the boundaries of the Earth is only about 1.3 ha for each of us. Thus, if the world shared all its resources equally, we would need to survive (and thrive?) on about one sixth to one tenth of our current "needs".

It is a consensus of opinion that the world is now in the grip of global warming and climate change, and that this is caused by human-induced CO2 emissions. There remain dissenters to the notion that it is "all our fault" but that there are underlying warming mechanisms related to the variable output of the Sun or well-established changes in the Earth-Sun orbital parameters which occur over cycles within a grand cycle of 100,000 years or so. This periodicity in global temperatures over geologic time is well established. Notwithstanding, something dramatic is happening to the Earth's climate now. As I wrote in "Australia in Drought", that nation's food production is seriously under threat from an epic shortage of water, with main rivers drying-up, and leaving little for irrigation. This is blamed squarely on global warming.

If we follow this reasoning and cut our CO2 emissions by 60%, and share the remaining fossil fuels equally among everybody in the world, we would suddenly find ourselves with just about 5% of current amounts. I have written before that it might be necessary to cut transportation by up to 90%, simply it terms of how much alternative fuel might be provided from renewable resources, and re-localise society into small, locally-provided for communities: these I have called "pods". I am highly skeptical that the "hydrogen economy" on the required grand scale of the "oil economy" can be implemented, certainly not within the timescale of oil supply depletion, and so all facts appear to point in the same direction: namely that on grounds of short petroleum supplies or driven by concerns over climate change, we have no choice but to cut back seriously on burning non-renewable oil-fuel - and that means cars left by the roadside.

The "global village" is on the way out, however you look at it. This means the end of consumer capitalism. Now that does require a paradigm shift, as indeed the appearance of plentiful oil did in the first place. It is not possible to reach the holy grail of "sustainability" (nor global social justice) unless we undertake a huge economic, moral and philosophical transition to what some have referred to as "The Simpler Way". This means the inauguration of a society that is based on a high degree of self-sufficiency (at least within small communities, if not as individuals per se, since the "pod" will share-out its various needs and contributions) and localised economies (farms and local businesses that do not depend on raw materials driven or flown over massive distances). In this "new world" our motivation will have to change.

Now we are driven by profit, but in a sustainable economy of necessarily low or zero economic growth our intentions would need to be amended. That prospect is frightening in comparison with the status quo. However, it might prove ultimately a more satisfying way to live - communities working together to provide what that community needs collectively. The word "Utopia" comes into my mind too, and I suspect the real barrier and hindrance is a lack of belief it could even be possible to make the transition. But whether we like it or not there will be radical transformation of the present society which is simply unsustainable. But to avoid descending into anarchy en route, some clear plans need to be drawn up rather than an unseeing, iron-fist grabbing at the resources such as oil that remain. They will run-out, and we are driving that outcome harder and more certainly each day. When they do, what then? What way is really left to us but "The Simpler Way?". Why not begin to take that step now, while we still have some resources in hand to make the transition easier?

Related Reading.
(1) Ted Trainer,
(2) (Here it is suggested than 3 billion or around half the world's current population might perish in consequence of the looming and catastrophic fall in world petroleum supply).