Good news: We have the renewable energy if we would just harness it. An article from the Land Art Generator website includes a very nice numerical analysis of how much energy humanity needs, how that has changed over time, and how we might provide for our needs using solar (and wind and wave) energy. It sets some goals that could be achieved within a couple of decades and allow us to provide practically all the energy we use from strictly renewable sources. This is great information, but how do we go ahead from here? Continue reading
Category Archives: sustainability
We invented our way into this situation. Many of our past inventions made life easier, food more plentiful, etc., and enabled population growth. When anything threatened to kill us off, we fought it with creativity and developed technologies to deal with it. Except for those inventions specifically aimed at killing people or managing our birthrates (the Chinese “One Child Law“, for example), our inventions have permitted us to thrive and propagate more and more effectively, and to increase our numbers at faster and faster rates. The problem we perceive now is that sooner or later the needs of our unchecked population will exceed available resources. This would seem a normal pattern for any life form, but there are plenty of examples where animal birthrates slowed inexplicably in the face of food shortages. That makes it seem that humans have lost the instinct for avoiding population-driven catastrophes, which leaves our fate up to us. So just how smart are we? Continue reading
Think of how we use the lights in our homes now and in the past. Today we switch on the hallway light to go to the kitchen (if it wasn’t already on), then switch on the kitchen light and possibly other lights, illuminating a large part of the home. This takes a lot of energy compared with the much more efficient means people used more than a century ago: oil lamps and candles. It also illustrates how, while the technology we choose is important, the way we use it can make a much greater difference in how efficient it is. Continue reading
How will we live when fossil fuel reserves have almost run out? Scientists and students of human history accept that human population will continue to explode until the energy sources fueling this incredible expansion start to run out. It is clear that a collapse of civilization will occur, probably over a period of decades in the mid-to-late 21st century. The change will be too rapid to cope with effectively, especially given skyrocketing energy costs and infrastructure breakdowns. The magnitude of the disasters involved will vary depending on how soon we wise up as a species, improve our long-range planning, and get serious about mitigating the coming challenges. While substitute energy sources will be developed quickly, the sheer numbers of humans being born onto the planet, day by day, may exceed our ability to build and deploy the replacement hardware and infrastructure, and the inability of most people to afford it may be an additional problem.
In the aftermath people will live quite differently from how we live today. After a period of decline that might last several decades, or perhaps a century, what remains will stabilize and coalesce into a new human civilization with some significant differences from what we know today. For instance, energy consumption per person will need to be a tenth or less of what people currently consume in North America. Here are a few ideas that might describe how we will live then. Continue reading
Since the industrial revolution of the 19th century, corporations have evolved and steadily gained power and influence. Corporate influence on government and media today has been enhanced and refined to the point where corporations have the power to control their appearance in the media as well as to secretly but powerfully influence elections and legislation. The corporate media have painted a carefully contrived picture that directs attention away from fundamental problems and towards superficial problems that condition events in their favor, as one would expect. As a result many people today have a view that serves corporate power: seeing “big government” as the problem and corporations as a source of jobs. This has been used to support the position that corporations should be given all the freedom they need to build their businesses and, hopefully, increase employment. This is especially visible today as population growth exceeds job growth and the middle and lower classes are seeing their political power, financial strength, and standard of living reduced. If those ideas were correct, however, we individuals might not be in the economic positions we’re in, but the corporate media are extremely powerful and have the wherewithal to control what the population knows, so the prospect for positive change is not good. So where might we be in two or three decades? Will the power of corporations continue to increase until governments become little more than proxies for multinational corporations? Will the lot of the average person continue to decline? Continue reading
The Population Connection (a. k. a. Zero Population Growth) paints a clear picture of the world situation in its quarterly publication, The Reporter. Please read it for very interesting information on humanity’s biggest problem and what is being done (or not being done) about it. Power politics, greed, and ignorance are big factors in how this is being handled in the U.S., unfortunately.
We live in truly amazing times. Read some of the statistics I found at this blog and you will be amazed. I think few realize just how fast human population has grown, where we are today, and how far beyond a long-term sustainable number we may be. The sustainable number I discussed in my article on “the simple math” is a matter for conjecture and speculation to a great extent, as we can’t easily predict future inventions, cultural changes, etc., but the fact that humanity’s numbers were less than a billion worldwide until around 1804 and didn’t reach 2 billion until 1927 makes me think the real, long-term sustainable number is probably 2 billion or less. I realize those numbers are frightening in light of our status today, but the future is ours to create and we should not be shying away from what looks like the biggest challenge humanity has ever face: to manage our own growth and use of the planet.
As always, I welcome your comments and thanks for reading — Tim
Interesting resource: Global Issues, Anup Shah, since 1998
Look at the comments I’ve received here. Notice that there are probably fewer total comments than the number of article-entries I’ve made here. I’ve been reading, researching, pondering, and writing for more than two years and 200 articles, and I rarely get a comment. Current total views stands at 44,327 – not bad – but I’m not hearing much back. Happily I was contacted via comment by another person who blogs on the future here on WordPress, Tincup68, and I find myself no longer alone. Amazing! Please give his or her site a read. It is very nicely written and well worth reading.
As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading — Tim
PS – it was because of this blog that I wrote and recorded this song: Nobody Looks at My Web Page. I hope you enjoy it!
(originally written in 2008) If climate change problems are as imminent as predicted, and if we are approaching a “tipping point” beyond which global weather and related systems will become unstable, and problems will become rapidly worse, we need to respond quickly. It is possible that a 5% solution, such as everyone driving 5% less, turning thermostats down to 65 this winter, and similar solutions, just won’t be enough. Our economy has become so consumption-based and dependent on the processing and sale of huge volumes of material and energy that doing less will cause a major recession, which will make responding to changing conditions much tougher for almost everyone. This scenario is so dire that I can only hope that the “tipping point” concept is wrong. Right now it appears we can only manage reducing our energy use and emissions in small increments without major economic problems. If we had heard such predictions sooner we could have reacted sooner, which would mitigate the risks. As a result, we are left to react now and do the best we can. The one thing that is sure is, we need to increase the pace of invention and innovation, and of scientific progress, to a faster rate than we’ve seen in recent decades, and, perhaps more importantly, those efforts need to be focused on reducing birthrates worldwide , creating new and improved renewable energy sources, and reducing energy use in all areas of our lives.
Smarter equals better, for everyone. In addition, we need to be educating ourselves and our children in every area, but especially in the hard sciences, mathematics, economics, psychology, sociology, and other areas that contribute directly to a major push towards sustainability. How do psychology and sociology contribute to achieving sustainability, you ask? One of the biggest problems we face is getting the entire human species engaged in this critical effort. We can’t afford the kind of finger-pointing that has accompanied the Kyoto negotiations, where the developed countries don’t want to harm their economies and the developing countries blame the problems on the developed countries, and nobody will take serious action. Getting everyone involved in the pursuit of a global solution will require a deep understanding of people, why and how they think as individuals and in groups, and how to get their cooperation in spite of huge differences and histories of war and hatred.
Getting everyone “on board” is important. We need to gain the cooperation of people who rely on a belief that their god or gods are going to save them, or that the end of the world will bring them salvation, giving them the sense that they can do whatever they want until then. (I suggest that their gods would not approve of them harming the people of the world through their behavior, but, unfortunately, their doctrines may tell them otherwise.)
It remains to be seen how much we can mitigate our increasing problems before the “perfect storm” of dwindling resources, a finite food supply, and an exploding population comes about. Until then we must learn to see ourselves in the global context, as part of a dominant species living on a finite planet – a species that has not yet learned (or has forgotten how) to control its numbers. We each have a part to play and it is our responsibility to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
As always, I appreciate your comments. — Tim
I am appalled, daily, at the total lack of consciousness, the total failure to acknowledge the population explosion even as it causes or plays a major part in our most critical problems. I have racked my brain for years over why we are failing as a species to see we are causing ourselves a disaster of unimaginable proportions that could take decades to come about and more decades or centuries for recovery. What are we missing? What can we do to turn this situation around and save at least some of our children and grandchildren from early and horrible deaths? Continue reading
A great article in the New York Times conveys an understanding of what needs to happen if we are to avoid catastrophic problems in the future due to the human population explosion. Full-on, totally committed action is needed by all governments, not just to take measures to reduce birthrates, cut pollution of all types, and conserve resources, but just generally to move us strongly towards sustainability. This requires we envision the world as it will be a century from now, but we must do it. We must take our best shot, and the first stage will be bringing overpopulation to the front pages of the world and to the top of the priorities of our governing officials. Please call, write, or email your government representatives and do what you can to MAKE them discuss overpopulation and the resulting problems publicly. This won’t be easy, but … what is your better alternative?
As always, your comments are gratefully welcomed. — Tim
The global human population is piling up. In the project management game (my current profession) we often observe a phenomenon that we call “snow plowing”. Essentially this is the putting off of work, or putting off of dealing with problems, until the uncompleted work and unresolved problems pile higher and higher and drive risk and costs needlessly high, to the point that the project could be canceled or simply fail to meet its objectives. It is easy to see, when you look at published population curves or see the sprawl of our suburbs and the decay in our infrastructure that we are rapidly plowing up a huge “drift” of problems and doing too little to mitigate them. Perhaps it’s time for a little truth, even though it may come across as shock therapy. My intent is not to shock, but to give a pause for thought that may affect future choices and actions.
First a few assumptions. Given that human population was less than one billion until 1804, and then didn’t pass two billion until 1927 (chart), it is safe to assume that, without the technological development that enabled our runaway population growth, a sustainable human population might actually be in the neighborhood of two to three billion. But humans are nothing if not adaptable and creative. It is possible we’ll be able to sustain ourselves with three or four billion if we invent a new source of energy to replace fossil fuels. Sadly, we are already near 7 billion and predicted to exceed 9 billion by 2040, leaving us a long way down to find a sustainable situation again. Keep in mind that these reductions must also counter the birth rate at that time.
Population: 9 billion
Sustainable population: 3 billion
Difference: 6 billion
Years to sustainability (by 2095): 50 (this might be less)
Reduction in population per year (average): 120,000,000 = 6 billion ⁄ 50 years
Reduction in population per day (average): 328,767 = 120 million⁄ 365 days/yr
Natural disasters haven’t come close to these numbers of deaths in the past. Of the natural events causing loss of human life in the past (list), only a few exceeded 100,000 in a single day. This suggests the reduction will involve human factors such as infrastructure failures, with resulting famine. Supply lines for most of us are already global, and both food and resources often travel through convoluted routes with a variety of risks. If populations in parts of the world are under pressure, they might block or otherwise hinder the supply routes, cutting off critical resources to the other parts of the world. In the past famine has often been accompanied by plague, and while our microbiological risks have increased due to overuse of antibiotics and our amazing transportation infrastructure, they could increase much more in the future.
Simple economics: fossil fuels will become unaffordable to most people within the 21st century. As population rises and we consume our energy resources at a faster and faster rate, there will be a point where further expansion is uneconomical and refineries will change over to produce products with higher value than regular gasoline, where they can still achieve a decent profit margin. This will further shorten supply and accelerate price increases. Oil is being exhausted most quickly, with somewhat longer futures for natural gas and coal, even though the former has environmental problems with its extraction process, only now being recognized, and the latter is a dirty fuel that is less affordable when the sulfur and other undesirable pollutants are removed. The problem with losing use of these fuels is not just transportation, but agriculture and manufacturing. Fertilizers and plastics (and most products involving chemicals) depend on large quantities of petroleum. Can you imagine the things you buy daily being packaged in, and often made solely from, wood, paper, or other renewable materials? When I see plastic I immediately wonder how much oil it took to make it, and what I would be using if there were no plastics.
A lot of people will have to die early before we’ll have a sustainable world again. While natural and human-caused disasters happen all the time, few (list) have ever killed enough humans to make a noticeable dent in the global population. The extreme steepness and height of the population curve suggests that, in the absence of determined actions to lower birthrates worldwide, those disasters will be much more prevalent and much worse in the next few decades. I hate to think about the size of disaster, and the number of dead it would take to make a significant reduction in world population but, given the number by which the population will need to be reduced, disasters will be far worse than we have seen in the past. Unpleasant as it is, we need to face the facts, change our direction, and begin working furiously in an all-out effort to curb population growth and invent ways to avoid the inevitable disasters.
This information needs to be faced directly by our political, economic, and social leaders. It’s obvious that we are still in a runaway condition as far as population is concerned, and it is creating ever larger problems involving supplies of energy and food, immigration, political conflicts, and economic instability. I have explored in other entries (here, here, here, here) reasons why people can’t bring themselves to speak of this topic, why news media, government, corporate, and political organizations refuse to accept, let alone address, the inevitable problems of the coming century. If we are to reduce and control the severity of these massive population reductions, and possibly save the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, we need to act today. For starters, this huge problem needs to be discussed publicly. Facts need to be brought to light and calm, clear-headed efforts to mitigate the coming disasters need to start today. Governments that balk at funding family planning efforts, for example, need to give such endeavors top priority.
What can you and I do? Mobilization against overpopulation and its effects is needed on a global scale. Effort needs to be expended in a manner similar to that experienced by some countries during World War II, with businesses forgoing profits, government-regulated rationing, and huge investments being made in science and technology, except that this needs to be global in scale. Since corporations are not sensitive to such long-term and seemingly remote problems, governments will need to focus the effort and force the corporate world to behave appropriately. This will only happen if we demand it at every turn. It is up to us to change the perspective of politicians and business leaders, to take no quarter in our pursuit of the measures needed to address the huge problem we have made for ourselves and all life on the planet. Painful as it is, the trouble inherent in publicizing the truth and demanding it be addressed is nothing compared with the trouble we will have in three or five decades when hundreds of thousands of people are dying every day, somewhere in the world, and we are all suffering extreme hardship.
On a personal level, I expect that every bit of conservation I pursue might buy my grandchildren an extra second to devise creative solutions to mitigate the problems of overpopulation. If I and everyone does enough in this regard, the time gained could be a big factor in reducing the inevitable suffering.
Write or speak with your representatives and explain the truths, over and over. The simple numbers are compelling and frightening, and maybe some properly placed fear will get people and institutions to face and address the realities. The contrast between today and where we will likely be in a half century is compelling. Tell this simple story to your representatives and demand action. Make it clear you will vote for the candidate who shows the best understanding and most vigorous actions against overpopulation and the resulting problems which are already upon us. Do everything you can to get the message across: we need action against overpopulation and we need it yesterday.
As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim
Look around you. Don’t you see a lot of plastic? It’s not only made from oil but the energy used to extract the raw material, process it, and ship it to you almost entirely came from oil. What can you see of unblemished nature from where you are now? Do you see a tree? It is probable that the tree was trimmed at some point, both the tools and fuel for which were made from or with energy from oil. In addition, the rate of growth of the tree has probably increased with the increase in carbon dioxide humanity has put into the air by burning oil. But what will we do when our fossil fuel supplies run low and become much more expensive to extract from the earth? Continue reading
There is increasing talk recently about the emergence of “the terminator”, also known as the “singularity”, which is the point when computers become smarter than humans and develop self-awareness. Of course, at least until the machines can prevent it, this kind of terminator can be unplugged or disconnected from the internet to stop it from running amok. There is another kind of terminator already in place, however, using humans as its computing elements and existing in a business-cultural context: the corporation. Continue reading
A new book reviewed on National Public Radio takes an attitude similar to mine: that while the next few decades will pose unprecedented challenges to all life on the planet, courtesy of the human population explosion, it will be humanity (or some of us) who will find new creativity and discipline to solve the inevitable problems. Take a look!