Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In a World of Infinite Energy

If the world were utopian, human beings would discover an energy source that is renewable, pollutant free and limitless in power. Such energy could come from breaking nucleic bonds, like fission, or by harnessing an undiscovered force that we are currently unaware of. In this world, consumption – which for us in the real world is the basis of economic stability – could not be exponentially rising, for a utopian environment would have to be civilization in a state of homeostasis, but could be sustained at a manageable level. To avoid the negative affects of resource depletion, every byproduct of the consumption driven economy would be recycled. Using the infinite power source, developed recycling technologies and a compliant citizenry, no receipt paper, food product wrapping or broken computer would be discarded without reentering into the cycle.

Many of the industries that are now staples of economic development would still be profitable. Homes would be built and sold, techno-gadgets could still have their place, and new fleets of automobiles would be introduced with every upcoming year. Electrical grids would never falter. Transportation would be cheap and guilt free. Population growth would be stable. Human and organic waste would be composted. Agriculture would be approached sustainably, utilizing techniques that maintain soil fertility.

Forget the exploitation, forget the complexities of nationalism, forget everything human that makes this scenario impossible, there are still lessons to be learned from the hypothetical vision above. Most importantly, it should be observed that an economy that is neither growing nor shrinking, yet is still functioning, cannot be upheld unless all of the natural capital that goes into the economic process is reused. Even with an infinite energy supply, we are still subjects of the Earth and its geological limits. Thus, if we are somehow able to avoid a peak in energy production in the coming decades, we inevitably will face a shortage of raw materials unless we drastically change our current way of consumption. Most likely, we will be facing a shortage in both.

Climate Change and Peak Oil have already received mainstream media attention, which is good for increasing public awareness on ecological issues, but what about Peak Metals, Peak Phosphorous, Peak Top Soil, Peak Water, Peak Lithium or Peak _____ (the list goes on and on)? It has become evident that civilization will be vulnerable not only to the consequences that arise from fossil fuel dependency, but also to the dwindling supplies of almost every material we use in our daily lives. And just like the current price of oil, the market price for these commodities fails to include impending scarcity. Regrettably, the invisible hand is not taking notice of the visible cliff that lies on the horizon.

Friday, March 6, 2009

An Obstacle of Human Desire

It is said that the biggest obstacle for environmental progression is entrenched interest. In the face of bribes (excuse me, lobbying), our representatives can’t seem to make responsible choices regarding sustainability. So business as usual continues, not because we couldn’t change for the better, but because the powers that be don’t want to alter the system they benefit from. Although that explanation has aspects of legitimacy, it proves to be a form of finger pointing. It’s not our fault we are polluters, it’s the man that’s bringing us down! Yet if we really wanted to catalyze change, wouldn’t we start living differently and not be waiting around to be reprimanded? Besides a select moral few who are actually making real sacrifices, we’re all talk and no action.

So the question remains, why? Why do we continue shooting ourselves in the foot – or what might turn out in the long run to be our temple – day after day without adjusting our lifestyles? The answer is simple: living unsustainably, burning fossil fuels gratuitously and consuming crap is fun. It is this obstacle, one of human desire, that is the greatest barrier for sustainable progression.

Want to travel across the world to drink Guinness in Ireland, see the pyramids in Egypt, and climb the Andes in Argentina? You’re going to have to commit environmental sin. The CO2 emissions necessary for those flights are the equivalent of you opening up your own coal-fire power plant in your backyard. Want to eat that Ahi Tuna Roll? Think of how far that tasty fish had to be shipped to reach your plate. And what about your favorite hobbies? Don’t even think about seeing those bands at Bonaroo, or driving to an obscure surf break, or snowboarding at Mammoth for your winter vacation unless you are willing to compromise the well being of future generations. But we do these things anyways, because that’s just the way we are.

Our brains are not hard wired to preemptively solve the long-term problems we face. We have proven to be too caught up in the thrill of now to worry about topsoil degradation, resource depletion, climate stability, or waste management. And as we are witnessing as the 21st century unfolds, just as the Club of Rome predicted, the limits of exponential growth and imperceptive policies are catching up with us. The catch about living an unsustainable lifestyle is just that, it’s unsustainable; it can only be upheld for so long, no matter how strong the desire is for it to be everlasting.