Yesterday I heard a great article on NPR (National Public Radio) about the factors that will affect how long our fossil fuels last, and that, in spite of projections that would direct otherwise, our industry continues to be heavily addicted to fossil fuels. I was extremely pleased that they acknowledged that, at some point, our fossil fuel resources will effectively run out, that is, will become so expensive due to scarcity and increased difficulty of extraction that we won’t be able to use them as we do now. Unfortunately, they failed to cite an underlying factor that probably has more impact on our future, including how long our fossil fuels last, than anything else: population. It is certain that, if population growth slows, fossil fuels will last longer. The problem is that fossil fuels, like pollution or climate change, aren’t the whole story.
Fossil fuels, I have read in a number of articles, will be around for a little while yet – oil for perhaps 25-50 years and coal for up to 100 years. But what about food? I remember reading a study around 2000 that predicted that there is enough food-producing capacity in the world (and the study specifically mentioned including plankton) to feed about 7.5 billion people. Other studies have cited our population growth rate at around a billion every 13 years, and that current global human population numbers around 6.5 billion. By my calculations, that means serious food shortages should begin to appear by 2021, and should worsen significantly thereafter.
Climate change may also pose major problems long before we begin to “run out” of fossil fuels. Actually, the cost of fossil fuels will rise until almost nobody can afford them, and rolling blackouts and high food costs due to transportation fuel costs will manifest themselves. Worse yet, if drought areas expand significantly, food costs will rise as production and availability fall, bringing the 2021 food shortage scenario nearer. And if sea levels begin to rise significantly, costly mass migrations and food and fuel shortages due to flooding coastlines and disabled power plants and fuel terminals on the coasts will further complicate the picture.
When the press reports on single issues such as the exhaustion of fossil fuels, certainly it is important to do so. What I don’t see is the pulling together and presentation of the big picture, showing the interaction of overpopulation and economic development with resulting pollution, climate change, and food and water shortages, among other factors. It is encouraging to see so many people becoming aware of the global and regional problems we are bringing on ourselves, but worrisome that the press still does a poor job of painting a holistic picture of our situation and our options.
I do believe that sustainability is achievable, but, as others have observed, we need an all-out effort by governments and individuals, with sacrifice and coordinated action on a scale of the United States’ mobilization during World War II, if we are to have a chance to effectively address the need for sustainable development, birthrate reduction, economic restructuring, and immediate pollution reduction worldwide. Only with huge and concentrated effort will we be able to mitigate the negative impacts of the problems we are causing and the global ecology. This is where we show whether humanity is any better than lemmings or bacteria at avoiding an ecological disaster of our own making.
I welcome your comments.