Monday, May 12, 2014

Our World

By Kyle Van Dyke

Earth from Space    (photo: NASA)


The modern world currently enjoys more riches and wealth than ever could have been imagined. The developed world is overflowing with cheap food, advanced medical care, clean water, air-conditioning, electricity, computers, etc. The list is endless. The complex and amazing lifestyle of the modern world is fantastic. We live radically different now than how humans did 500 years ago, let alone 200,000 years ago when modern humans first appeared.

But despite these incredible advances, much of this change has gone underappreciated. In fact, the youth of today have no idea what life would be like without their iPads, Tweets, and Walmart. Baby-boomers have no idea what life would be like without cars, movie theaters, and toilets. We are a very different society from what has come before us, but we don’t even realize it.

Psychological research has revealed a common phenomenon known as “anchoring,” which is the tendency to base decisions on events or values known, even though these facts may have no bearing on the actual event or value. An example of this is when you pull into the gas station and expect that there will be petroleum to fill up your car, because you did that last week and it worked. What you’re doing is making a prediction based on your past experience, without any information on the factors that affect whether or not there will be gasoline today. Some of these factors include the amount of oil left globally, the geo-political state of the nation from which the oil is derived, the state of the trade routes along which the oil is transported, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this tendency to assume, the phenomenon is indicative of how human brains work. We assume things will work based on past experiences, especially with tasks that we don’t want to spend a lot of energy on understanding, such as filling up our gas tanks.

Although this is fine to do when the assumption turns out to be correct, like when there is gasoline at the gas station, sometimes this assumption gets proven wrong. And that’s the first time we realize that we were even making an assumption at all.

We Have Time

The major flaw of modern society is its ego. Humans are too busy building off developments achieved by the previous two generations that the hundreds of generations preceding, and therefore the foundation on which the current society has been built, is forgotten. Since we do not make any effort to remember, we simply assume that life will continue to be like how it has been in recent memory. This kind of thinking results in two inaccurate and dangerous assumptions.

1. We can continue with the status quo.

The status quo changes over time, depending on many factors, such as environmental factors. The current status quo of society is to continue to grow at an exponential rate: in terms of economics and population. This is impossible because of resource depletion, and the limits of the finite system we call Earth.

Resource depletion

Humans are extracting the resources of the Earth at an unprecedented rate. Any resource extracted (or “produced”) by humans follows a general trend of increasing extraction followed by decline. This concept was popularized by Marion King Hubbert, a chief geologist for Shell Development Company, who presented and published a paper to the American Petroleum Institute entitled “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” Below is a graph from this paper, which shows extraction beginning at zero, followed by an exponential increase in extraction, followed by a peaking in extraction (meaning that 50% of the resource has been extracted), and followed by an exponential decline in extraction until it returns back to zero.

a. One of the most critical of resources to humans is oil, the global peak production of which was reached in 2005, according to data provided by British Petroleum. Humans are currently struggling against the decline of the curve, exemplified by the current “plateau” in crude oil production. This plateau will soon cease, however, as oil caches continue to become rarer, more difficult to access, and costlier to exploit. Oil represents the most critical energy source for the modern world, because it drives economic growth through provision of a liquid fuel easily used for transportation, as well as raw material for other critical substances, such as plastic. More can be learned about peak oil, as well as other issues, in the 2011 documentary film “The Crisis of Civilization.”

b. Another of the most critical resources is food. The problem with food production is that it requires an adequate amount of soil, which humans are losing at an amazing rate. The average rate of global soil production is 1 ton per hectare (~2.5 acres) per year. In contrast, the average rate of global soil loss is 5-10 tons per hectare per year. This soil is degraded and lost to storm runoff, making farms less and less able to produce food. More can be read about soil degradation in Stephen Gliessman’s 2007 book “Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems.”

A resource necessary for adequate food production is phosphorous. This resource is typically extracted as phosphate rock, the mineral of which is one of the three critical macronutrients for plant growth, and is most associated with flower production. Humans are currently extracting phosphorous at unprecedented rates, and is predicted to peak around 2040, which will likely have a significant effect on food production worldwide. More can be read about peak phosphorous, as well as other issues, in Richard Heinberg’s 2011 book “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality.”

c. Another of the most critical resources is drinkable, fresh water. Currently, various regions of the United States have reached “peak renewable water,” which means that we are currently extracting as much as is replenishing water sources, like rivers. In various regions of the world, “peak non-renewable water” is currently being realized, which means that we are close to extracting 50% of water from sources that replenish themselves very slowly, such as underground aquifers. Globally, we are nearing “peak ecological water,” which is “the point at which taking more water for human use leads to ecological disruptions greater than the value that this increased water provides to humans.” More can be read about peak water in Peter Gleick’s 2011 Forbes article entitled “Is the U.S. Reaching Peak Water.”

d. A fourth critical resource is a balanced atmosphere. Climate change will have a significant impact on modern civilization: decreasing agricultural production, increased disease by migrating insect populations, increased heat waves, destruction of property by increased frequency of severe storms and sea level rise, increased flooding, and increased drought. Humans will have a difficult time adapting to extreme fluctuations in climate, the dangers of which will continue to worsen, especially if carbon emissions are not immediately and significantly reduced.

Exponential growth

a. Modern civilization’s global economy is increasing at an exponential rate. The functioning of all modern societies is dependent upon the status of “growth” in their economies as measured by GDP, or gross domestic product. The problem with requiring economies to exponentially grow in monetary value is that the reason why economies have been growing so rapidly has been forgotten, which is the existence of natural resources that permit this level of growth. Once those resources have been exponentially extracted, they will suffer an exponential decrease in extraction, causing the economy to exponentially collapse with it. Consider the correlation in the graph below between global crude oil production and global GDP growth.


b. The global human population has exponentially grown from a relatively stable level of 1 billion in 1804 to the current 7+ billion level of today, all within 210 years. This explosive level of growth is not sustainable, as the Earth’s resources are reaching peak extraction rates. The global population is likely to crash once resource scarcity becomes fully realized, since the reason the majority of humans alive today are due to fossil fuel use, which spurred the Green Revolution in agricultural production.

This phenomenon has been extensively catalogued in nature: a population capitalizes on a resource and exponentially grows, but once the resource reaches peak utilization, the population crashes along with the exponential decline in resource use. Consider the commonly cited graph below which shows the dependent relationship between the lynx population (actor) and the snowshoe hare population (resource). The graph depicts over 100 years of information regarding the population levels of the lynx as rising and falling in line with the fluctuation of the lynx’s primary resource: the snowshoe hare. Similarly, just as the lynx population declines in response to a decline in the snowshoe hare population, the global economy will decline in response to the decline in energy sources, such as oil.

2. We can solve everything through human ingenuity and technology.

There is a general belief that humans have superpowers of creativity which can be called upon to solve all of its problems. It is this belief that permits our belief in being able to conduct “business-as-usual,” or the status quo. While understandable that our collective ego has felt an inflated sense of capability since the utilization of fossil fuels, there is a problem arising. This assumption in our ability to problem-solve everything is being proven wrong. Below is an example of one of these assumptions.
We can switch to hydrogen, electric, or natural gas as fuels for transportation.

Although humans in the developed world, and increasingly those in developing countries who wish to emulate the extravagant lifestyle of the West, love to drive automobiles, this doesn’t mean that they will always be able to. With the issues of peak oil becoming more and more of a daily reality, there is a belief that alternative technologies will enable us to continue living as we currently are.

Unfortunately, there are no alternative technologies proposed with any realistic viability. The chief reason none of these options are viable is because the global supply web necessary to sustain the production of vehicles for transportation requires vast amounts of energy by itself, which will become increasingly more expensive to produce. Aside from this fact, the implementation of these technologies will require the production or conversion of millions of vehicles, which will cost vast amounts of financial investments, research, and energy. The infrastructure to support and “re-fuel” vehicles utilizing these technologies will also have to be developed, similarly requiring vast amounts of money, research, and energy. Lastly, automobiles as used in the developed world today, meaning use by single individuals, simply requires vastly too much energy and produces far too much pollution to be sustained in the future.  Additional reasons for each technology are listed below.

a. Hydrogen cars have been proposed as a futuristic model for how cars could operate as an alternative to the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), which runs on oil. The main problem with using hydrogen as a fuel source is that in order to produce hydrogen the bonds between hydrogen and oxygen in water have to be broken, which requires more energy to produce than is gained from burning hydrogen.

b. Electric cars are another proposed model for how cars could operate in the future. The main problem with electric or battery-powered cars is that batteries require minerals such as lithium, which need to be extracted from the Earth using energy-intensive machinery, which assumedly will also need to run on lithium batteries. Second, electricity is only a means to store energy; it is not an energy source in and of itself. This means that you still have to produce energy another way in order to charge the electric batteries, presumably fossil fuels.

c. Natural-gas vehicles are another popularly proposed alternative to the Internal Combustion Engine, even mentioned by President Obama in his 2014 State of the Union address. The main problem with natural-gas powered vehicles is that Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) are only viable for trucks or large vehicles, based on physical limitations in its production and use. Additionally, global conventional natural gas production is projected to peak around 2020, according to the Energy Watch Group. Natural gas caches are also known to decline more rapidly than other resources, such as oil. This means that a vast amount of investment, research, and energy is going to be invested in the utilization of a resource that will soon become unviable. The good news for the United States is that it seems to have a disproportionate percentage of the total available natural gas on the planet, although this seems unfair to developing nations who are just now starting to enjoy the level of resource use previously only seen by the developed world.

What Next?

The real tragedy of modern society is that we not only dismiss our previous generations as irrelevant, but that we also dismiss future generations. We extract resources, destroy the environment, and grow our populations to irresponsible levels, leaving our children and grandchildren to clean up the wreckage. Soon, modern society’s assumptions will be proven irrevocably wrong, and then, hopefully, we can change the world for the better.

But in the meantime, change your lifestyle. Make your life more local. Downsize your impact on the environment by reducing your resource use. Sell your car. Grow your own food. Meet your neighbors. Get creative.

More information on sustainable living can be found at Permaculture Magazine’s website. Additional sources of information can be found below.

Further Learning
Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas (ASPO)
Greene, G. (Director). (2004). The End of Suburbia [Online video]. Canada: The Electric Wallpaper Company. 
Puckett, D. (Director). Ahmed, N. M. (Narrator). (2011). The Crisis of Civilization [Online video]. 
Ruppert, M. (Actor). (2009). Collapse [Online video]. USA: Bluemark Productions.
Wood, J. J. (Director). (2006). Crude Impact [Online video].

Kyle Van Dyke is an undergraduate student at Ramapo College majoring in Contemporary Arts with a minor in Environmental Studies. He is unsure of his future career, though he enjoys writing and proposing new and innovative ideas to create social value by increasing synergy between organizations and citizens. He is graduating this May, and will be interning with a renewable energy non-profit, NJPACE, this summer.

1 comment:

  1. This summary and the report leaves out any mention of the work and assistance of the Non-Profit Edison Wetlands Association (EWA) and the 8 plus years both the EWA and our technical advisors have provided to the community and families of upper Ringwood. The EWA advocacy has provided resources, advocacy and technical assistance that has made a real and substantive change in the quality of life for those who live in the community impacted by Fords toxic dumping. It is not fair to exclude the EWA's work and dedication to the Ramapough families plight. Also while not perfect the USEPA and other agencies have worked with the CAG and removed all known surface paint sludge and residential contamination. This report should have presented a more balanced assessment and also given credit to those who have improved the living conditions of the Ramapoughs and other families who are affected by this sad situation.