Sustainable Civilization: From the Grass Roots Up
Introduction - Sustainability Challenges
Our predominant industry, political, and personal paradigms developed in an era of cheap abundant energy, expanding population, and what seemed to be unlimited resources. We have gone forth and multiplied (well beyond sustainable numbers) and subdued (perhaps fatally) the Earth. The flow of stored energy needed to operate our infrastructure is ending. Belief in or dedication to a particular ideology may alter individual perceptions, but not physical facts. We need to re-think our civilization from the grass roots up, not bumble blindly on. Do you care about the damage humans continue to do to the global environment? Do you care about plants and animals having a “natural” habitat free of human interference? Do you care about the level of resource waste committed by current human society? Do you care about the overall quality of life for each living person? We need to set aside the rigid mindset that separates and sees our infrastructure as distinct aspects of biological, structures and other engineering, and information and intellect. It all needs to work together with minimal loss of energy in such transformations as are necessary.
There are many treatises with theories on how many people could live on the Earth based on some minimum life support per person. I propose though we ask also, what is the minimum for new healthy generations, maintaining community, and the benefits of an educated technical and developing civilization, with an eye toward providing the best living conditions per person and opportunities for continued advancement of civilization, while reducing our impact on such as remains of nature.
As we enter a new millennium, human civilization faces numerous challenges. Much of our present infrastructure and processes are not sustainable. Much of what we do threatens not only us, but all life on the planet.
- Industry pollutes with enduring toxins that not only kill but alter our DNA. - Fission reactors provide power for a few decades, all the while “threatening” to release a radioactive cloud, then require future generations guard against the dismantled parts for perhaps a hundred thousand years.
- We arguably divert one half of the renewable resources of the planet to human uses. - We use non-renewable resources in manners that destroy them. - The apparent abundance from hybrid crops is dependent on non-renewable resources and energy exponentially higher than the energy within the food.
- The farming and food infrastructure depletes the groundwater, mineral, and biological base essential for soil to grow healthy natural food. - Easy to mine metals and mineral resources are already "on the table". - The economy of many nations is based not on actual capability and production of the nation, but on borrowing and inflation of currency.
Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine you are traveling on a multi-generation spacecraft, powered by energy radiated from a fusion reactor.
You have only the biological diversity and resources put on board by the builders. Awhile back people found accumulations of long-stored complex molecular feedstock that work as convenient fuel, and can help certain crops grow more abundant. The burning strains the air recycling system, but people love the extra food, products and services it allows. The dramatic but obviously temporarily increase in the growth of food is met by expanded numbers until even these sources are strained, and continue to increase the population even in the face of facts that the food surplus cannot last the natural lifespan of the present population.
It's where we are today.
For the moment, our farms still grow sufficient food to feed everyone. But each new belly to fill, and each gallon of fertilizer and pesticide used, moves us closer to “peak food”. From that point on, the food infrastructure becomes less and less productive. Without reliable food, such veneer of civilization as holds back the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" could easily crumble. The world may appear large, but it is finite. We can calculate the available land, water, and other resources, and even our day to day allowance of incoming solar energy. We know the minimum calorie energy and nutrition required per person, and can calculate the area to grow food based on plant selection and growing conditions.
We are facing not any government created arbitrary currency or policy limit to human achievement, but the factors of physical resources, and centrally available energy. With enough energy, resources can be reworked. Without it we may leave much of the Earth a high-tech desert.
We can calculate the area required for solar energy to grow industrial materials and fuel, and the tradeoff in food area. We have calculated that we are already diverting to human use one-half of the productive life of the Earth. When you have estimated some basic footprint area per person, multiplying by 6 billion provides a sobering comparison to the available renewable resources of the Earth.
The concept of determining the "footprint", or area of naturally recycled resources required to provide for the uses of a person, city, nation, or the global population shows that in almost every defined area whether political or physical, we are beyond a sustainable population . Eliminate all human resource use that is not "life-support" for a fixed population, and you still find sustainability is at best questionable. The present infrastructure is producing food beyond that which is calculable for the sustainable input. In general, it would take several additional planets to provide for humanities present resource use rate.
How is this possible? How are we providing for 6+ billion people? Our infrastructure is dependent on the non-renewable withdrawal of the energy valued stored in fossil fuels. The timeframe when the first non-renewable yet essential input fails to meet demand is the lifespan of our present civilized infrastructure.
Since the fossil fuel era really began, the global human population has increased six fold, now standing at more than six billion. We have a deadline and the clock is ticking. Business as usual is suicide. But those who see the problem and speak of it are maligned. Nevertheless those who can be awoken must be. To make the best decisions and implement the best courses of action we need the best minds at work. It will take time and significant effort to implement change.
U.S. economic illusion Edit
The admitted U.S. government debt as of September 2007 was $8.965 trillion, and rising. This number represents recognized debt, such as Treasury Bills, Savings Bonds, etc. Every year the amount is growing. But this huge number is just the tip of the iceberg.
In 2004 the trustees of Social Security and Medicare projected the current costs of promised payments to be around $74 trillion. Every year, the promises continue to grow, as does the "on the books" debt. Starting in 2008, the beginnings of the post WWII "baby boom" become eligible for their early Social Security payments. If/when these people, (who are among the highest tax paying workers) retire, federal tax income slumps, even as the promised payments balloon.
The federal government does not have the assets to make existing promised payments with “money” of real value, and politicians have no problem adding to the lies with further promised of money and benefits.
The government CANNOT provide guaranteed financial security. The government does not operate any for-profit business; it operates only by taking money from those who actually create profits, or by appearing to create "money" by inflating the currency, essentially stealing from anyone who holds the currency of the nation.
Remember, unlike a barter currency denominated in gold, grain, jugs of wine, or kilowatt hour of electricity, there is no inherent recognizable trade-good value to the U.S. dollar. The dollar only has value for so long as people believe it has. Although the dollar is used in trade between two willing parties, never forget that there is the third party of the government constantly manipulating the value of the dollar.
The economy, ANY economy, goes thru natural cycles of expansion and contraction, depending on the demographics of the population, resource changes, technological development, etc.
Even if there was unlimited and free fossil fuel to provide the energy to operate the economy, there is no apparent way that the U.S. could actually pay this debt in real value. The only apparent "out" for the government is inflation. This creation of money out of thin air DESTROYS the value of existing money.
There are nations that actually spend less then tax revenues. Of all the nations on the planet, the U.S. is THE WORST in deficit spending. We annually go into debt more than every other nation on the face of the planet combined.
Denying the situation, and actively making it worse, seems insane, unless you realize our politicians, and our news media, are fully aware of the situation, and the fact there is no sane way out. Stop the overspending, and the economy crashes now. Announce the promises won't be paid, and there is political fallout, and the economy crashes now. Keep churning out the promises, and MAYBE your term will end quietly, and someone else will have to account for the disaster.
It's the same with the "peak oil" situation. Those who run government and businesses appear determined to run full speed for as long as possible. They have been advised repeatedly of the problems we face. The rational conclusion is they do not see any solution from the top down.
Sustainability as a concept Edit
A Sustainable Civilization is one where the needs of the present can be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is one where there are feedback loops, physical and mental, personal, family, and societal which keep in check population growth and resource use. It is one where resources, physical and energy are “banked” as a safety net, and to allow concentrated large expenditures for improvement projects. Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assistd, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally? - Professor A.A. Bartlett
The time required for a society to make a planned transition to sustainability on its own terms, so it can live within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, increases with increases in
i ) the size of its population
ii ) the rate of growth of its population
iii ) the society's average per-capita rate of consumption of new resources.
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim. -Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968
Sustainable civilization is not about integrating humanity into natural ecosystems. What we need to do regarding such of the natural world as remains, is to leave it alone.
Sustainable civilization is about the human community as a distinct ecology. The word sustainable implies the ability to continue for an indefinite period. We should be considering the period in which we hope humans will inhabit the Earth, at least several thousand years or until we develop interstellar travel and can truly go elsewhere.
To put sustainable into an easier to comprehend timeframe consider, as did earlier occupants of this country, seven generations.
"In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations"
- From the Great Law of the Iroquois Nation
If we consider the range of child bearing years to be between the ages of 16 to 40, seven generations is somewhere between 96 and 280 years.
What are the effects of your decisions and actions on each of the next seven generations? What argument do you document for history if your resources use is destructive and lessens the options of a future generation?
How much of infrastructure of present-day civilization has been in place for 200 or more years, can be powered or provide for, or otherwise be useful 200 years or more from now?
Fossils as old as half a million years show essentially physically present day human remains. Will humans, and human civilization, still be here in another half million years?
Despite stories of places such as Atlantis, the archeological record appears to show that as of the end of the last ice age human civilization was still at the hunter-gatherer level, with perhaps a total population of 37 million people. We have destroyed a great deal of the wilderness, and if we lose civilization and fall again to such a level, we can expect the sustainable population of humans to be significantly less than this.
In his work Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond shows that it was their physical environment, in particular crops and animals readily domesticated, rather than a biological difference in peoples which lead to the significant differences in development.
For a brief period, withdrawal from the energy account represented by oil has permitted humans to live in places, numbers, and manners that are otherwise not possible. We now face the real potential for collapse of civilization on a global scale, with much of the natural ecology already gone, and the remaining already overtaxed.
If we lose civilization, there is no known bank of energy to power rebuilding and continue to provide for a large population. We must understand the meaning and consequences of our demand and use of the resources of the world, what we can, and cannot do.
Resource use considered Edit
For all practical purposes, resources can be considered as renewable, or finite. Our resource use can also been seen as destructive or reusable.
Renewable resources (i.e. air, water, food, solar energy) cannot sustainably be used at a rate greater than renewal. Renewable resources can arguably be used to some extent in a "destructive" manner, such as boiling away water, or burning wood, where natural processes, or human technology such as a steam condenser can bring the resource back to a useful form.
Finite resources such as oil can "renewably" be used in non-destructive manners, such as feedstock for plastics or lubricants. But when these are destructively (i.e. burned) used for all practical purposes the resource is gone.
Groundwater is a prime renewable resource example. Groundwater is in essence a big, leaky rainbarrel. When it is pumped out faster than it is being refilled, the water table drops. Some groundwater is “fossil water”, in place since the last, or previous ice-age melt. Once used, it is gone forever, for all practical human purposes.
We drawn down our “bank account” of fossil fuels to propel our vehicles, and turn our generators. At some point, potentially much sooner than we like, any need for these trips, and our electrical power, will have to be met by another means:
- A renewable fuel - A non fuel burning transport - Relocate daily needs within walking distance - Power from other sources, reduced or eliminated demand
No aspect of civilization that must be sustained indefinitely could rationally be based on the destructive use of a non-renewable resource. (Our whole civilization suffers this insanity.)
Hidden Resource dependence Edit
Fossil energy embedded in food
In peak oil discussions it is frequently presented that food production using hybrid / green revolution crops requires 10 calories of input (in the form of pesticides and fertilizers) for every calorie of food produced. The Columbia University "Vertical Farm" project raises this estimate to 20:1. (Transportation or cooking of the food NOT included in this estimate.) What does this translate to in real world terms?
In general, a human needs 2000 calories of energy per day. Although they are normally spelled the same, a food calorie is in fact 1,000 "heat" calories. Posit therefore that a gallon of gasoline contains 144,000 BTU, which equals around 36,000 food calories. If the peak oil commentators are right then to produce 2,000 calories of food requires the use of 20,000 calories of oil. (55% of a gallon)
For a projected U.S. population of 300 million, annually it is around 60 BILLION gallons, or between 15% and 20% of U.S. annual fossil fuel use as oil. At $2.92 per gallon almost $178 BILLION in oil just to produce our food.
As an example, if you eat commercially produced food , you daily meals represent a dependency on oil equal to a 30 mpg vehicle driving 16 miles.
Absent this un-sustainable input, the food production miracle of the green revolution crops, in use worldwide, and upon which the majority of the 6+ billion population depends, ends.
Framing the picture Edit
The focus of this treatise is not intended to be on fossil fuel use, but we must acknowledge our present infrastructure is essentially dependent on energy from consumption of cheap, abundant oil.
When humanity started its 100+ year oil party most of the 1 billion or so individuals lived primarily in small, essentially self-sufficient communities.
Like spendthrift heirs, we have squandered most of the incredible resource oil represented not in long term improvements, but on devices, uses, and life support for an expanding population, which demands ever-faster destruction of the remaining stored energy.
Nations such as the United States, with a per person energy and resource use that is probably greater than that of any other definable group on the planet, rightfully deserve the "blame" of their increased throughput. But there is more to the story.
To those who consider the concept of long term sustainability, the challenges of the coming "peak oil", and the realization of how dependent we are on the destruction of non-renewable resources…
You have the choice offered by Morpheus, in "The Matrix":
Take the blue pill, wake up and believe whatever you like, or:
Take the red pill, but "… you may not like how deep the rabbit hole goes…"
To achieve sustainability is going to present large challenges, and you may not like what is necessary. But first and foremost, think.
"Sustainability" must become part of every decision. It's not that driving a gas-guzzling vehicle is "wrong". It's a waste of a finite resource, yes, but it's the personal decision of the driver.
The "problem" comes when the same destruction of a finite resource is the sole means to provide an essential aspect of life, society, or civilization, where the need is known to be long-term and far outlasting the finite resource.
The fossil energy embedded in food shows that the peak in oil availability is a concern not only for those who drive a huge SUV, but everyone dependent on green-revolution crops. This scientific miracle, feeding an expanding population, has been a spiraling short-sighted mistake. We do not need to reach the point where we are “out” of oil, for significant problems to arise.
Whether you are picking garden plants, planning for your healthcare, deciding on your vote for propositions or politicians, LOOK TO THE LONG TERM, or if not acknowledge you don't care about your children's future.
Essentially the entire global socio-economic-industrial system, all of the jobs, and the government tax revenue dependent on such, evolved and developed under a paradigm of continued growth in population, expanding food supply, and in particular expanding energy supplies. As fossil fuels are depleted, this all stops.
All of the fossil fuel powered machines, stop.
All of the crops dependent on fossil fuel derived pesticides and fertilizers, stop.
The businesses, and tax revenues, stop.
The government programs, stop.
The federal government will have difficulty keeping national defense in operation, let alone having any useful funding for anything else. Yes, the federal government can pay out any amount it likes:
It can print money.
It can go into debt:
For money that it eventually, somehow, repays (not likely), or;
It can go into debt for money it never intends to repay.
Expanding "money" in these manners is a source of inflation.
Expanding demand though, whether per person, or in the number of people, is a source of "actual" price increases.
Do NOT believe that any federally funded program is "sustainable".
The situation with the government of a state is further limited. The state cannot print money, it can only hold a gun to the head of the state residents and demand a percentage of the value the residents have produced. It is the same the rest of the way down the government chain.
We are entering a new paradigm, which requires essentially a steady-state population.
Life support, clean air, safe water, and nutritious food, must again be local.
Resources and energy must be accumulated, and used and invested wisely.
The economy, at least whatever aspects you rely on, must be local.
If the excesses in production end, so do the excessive tax revenue that funds growing programs. Are we going to have a society of free individuals working together voluntarily, or a complete take over by governments controlling every aspect of life? Virtually anything in-between is an inherent conflict.
If you believe that business as usual can continue, whether for individuals, private sector businesses, or the government, ask yourself how?
Peak oil Edit
"Peak Oil" is the point where the wells simply cannot be pumped as fast as demand. Peak Oil may soon be reached; some say it already has been. Sometime before exhaustion, as wells dry up, oil will no longer be cheap, or abundant, and the present infrastructure will have to be progressively shut down.
There are those who advocate a position, notwithstanding historical or present use of oil, that with technology we can eliminate our dependence on oil, yet continue to operate our highly fuel dependent economy and infrastructure.
Information on remaining supplies is not necessarily reliable. In early 2006, Kuwait announced it had mis-represented its remaining supply of oil to be twice the true amount.
In late 2006 Mexico announced that its giant Cantarell oil field, which at its peak in 2003 had produced around 730 million barrels per year, has fallen to 650 million with progressive decline expected. This one field represents 2% of the world capacity.
Co2 & global warming Edit
Whether you believe the global temperature is rising, or that human activity is a cause, the CO2 level in the atmosphere is increasing. Glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting.
For relevant background, one gallon of gasoline weighs about 6.25 pounds. When burned the hydrocarbons combine with oxygen from the air. The result per gallon is exhaust with a CO2 aspect of 19.3 pounds and around 8 pounds (1 gallon in liquid form) of water vapor, both greenhouse gases which would not naturally have been in the atmosphere. Burning gasoline also releases carbon monoxide and other nasty stuff.
Every gallon of gasoline burned releases CO2 equal to nine people breathing a full day. (Est. at 2.2 pounds of CO2 per person per day.) To use plants to remove the CO2, for each gallon of gasoline burned you would need to use organic methods to grow around 1/2 acre of lush vegetation, gather it all, and seal it away "forever" such that it is never eaten or rotted .
If the peak oil and fossil fuel depletion folks are anywhere near right, within a decade rising demand (i.e. China at around 14% per year) and falling supply (i.e. the losses in the Cantarell field in Mexico) WILL, absent a scientific miracle, prompt a return to "King Coal" and the associated greater pollution, and the short term benefit (long term danger) of fission reactors. This allows a short-term continuation of the status quo, followed by collapse if we have not used the time and resources to shift to a sustainable infrastructure and balanced population.
If the global warming sentinels such as former Vice President Gore are correct, if we continue fossil fuel use, our "best case" scenario could be the global warming presented in his book and movie "An Inconvenient Truth", with the same need for a sustainable infrastructure and balanced population, but with an ecosphere more polluted and with lessened life-support capability. Making even morning television news in 2007 is the melting of the Greenland ice cover. Observations are that as it melts it develops crevices, tunnels and faults through which the melted water seeps to the buried surface, making a slick between the glaciers and the rock holding it up. This scenario potentially allows, when the applicable “tipping point” is reached, for the mountain of ice to slide toward the sea in a relatively short period of time. The Greenland glaciers contain enough water to raise sea level twenty feet, or seven meters. This challenges coastal communities worldwide. While even the fastest slide would allow populations to walk away from the coast, constructed and food infrastructure would have to be rebuilt on higher ground. The changes on current flow in the Atlantic, and weather patterns, can only be guessed. Loss of the weight of the ice could cause the land mass of Greenland to be pushed up, leading to seismic events and further distortion of the land/sea area ratio. A US Navy survey suggests that Arctic polar ice will be gone by 2016. What are your thoughts and plans if this means the Greenland ice melts around the same timeframe? Whether voluntarily now, or from exhaustion a few more polluted decades from now, the central theme is the end of the fossil fuel era, and all of infrastructure and aspects of civilization that are dependent on such.