Can improvements in technology keep up with increasing global demand? As I look around at various discussions of the current world situation I read lots of interesting thoughts and ideas around our rapidly advancing technology. Some see the rate of technological advancement as being on a continuous exponential upswing that will result in fabulous new classes of products, free or nearly free energy, and answers to practically all of our currently-anticipated global troubles within a decade or two. Others see a rocky road of regional energy and food shortages, promising technologies taking too long too implement, and much worse. I tend to be somewhere in the middle of it all, and working to raise consciousness so that the rocky road will be less so, and the technologies will have time to arrive. The problem is that, while technological development is accelerating, world problems are, too, and population seems to be the perennial behind-the-scenes story. The real race I see is between conservation (to buy time), scientific developments, the will to implement new technologies, and increasing human numbers and per capita demand. The unfortunate fact is that demand is accelerating faster than population as the world “globalizes” and modernizes.
Large scale measures are needed to counter increasing demand. Besides accounts of leap-ahead technological developments, I also read discussions and papers on resource consumption rates, “peak oil” (which some experts feel we’ve now passed), rapidly growing population in less developed countries, and resulting galloping demand for … everything. It is hard for me to see whether the increase in demand is outpacing technological and other developments that would help us cope with it, but I do know that, once a new technology is available for use, it may still take years to put it in place with all the attendant infrastructure to make it actually work on a large scale. (With our huge population almost anything must be done on a large scale to be effective.)
Energy demand and supporting infrastructure are key factors in the race to sustainability. Hydrogen as a fuel is an example of the limitations around implementing new technologies. To my knowledge we have neither the production capacity nor the pipelines needed to produce and distribute enough hydrogen to help our growing energy crisis, and it will take a decade or more to have them even with our best efforts. Natural gas is readily available, and my city has an LNG gas pump available to the public near my home, though I have yet to see such in any gas station or fuel depot, and natural gas powered vehicles are NOT being promoted by any of the auto companies as far as I’ve seen. (Is there some problem with natural gas power I’m not aware of? There must be …) Fusion power, much discussed, appears to be on it’s way to us, with availability at any meaningful scale still 30 to 50 years away.
The oldest and most plentiful fossil fuel may not last as long as many expect. And then there is good old coal. As with oil, the best quality (lowest sulphur) coal is already scarce, and ever more costly as a result. Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett says the statement that we have enough coal for a hundred years should be setting off alarm bells, as a century is not that long. To make matters worse, most such estimates do not take into account the growth rate, which, if we assume a 5% growth rate in consumption, says we will actually run out of coal in only 38 years (do the math – I did). This, of course, is a result of demand, and, ultimately, demand is driven by population.
Petroleum demand is already beyond mitigation with new discoveries. Dr. Bartlett notes that recent calculations indicate that finding a new 1 billion barrel oil field will only delay the exhaustion of our oil resources by 5.5 days (link). Obviously, this is due to an incredibly high demand for energy, and demand is growing rapidly.
Technology doesn’t appear able to solve our problems alone, and other measures are needed as well. As consumption is driven far more by population than any other factor, a major future reduction in population will extend our resources more than any other measure except, perhaps, if the shining dreams of some fusion power enthusiasts come to pass, or aliens take over the earth and rebuild our infrastructure for us (let’s hope they don’t see us as food, though). Since a major reduction in population is undesirable (to put it mildly), and aliens are *very* unlikely to want to have any contact with a bunch of primitive warmongers like us, we are left with technology, which appears unlikely to be able to come to our rescue, or to keep up with ever increasing population-driven demand.
Government action to lower birthrates is badly needed. That leaves us with simpler and more predictable means to smooth the rocky road ahead … the social, political, and cultural avenues, probably powered by government actions. We need to slow population growth to a crawl, and reverse it in certain areas of the globe where overpopulation is already leading to critical food and energy shortages, and political unrest. That is going to be hard. When I think of a city like Karachi or Mexico City, and their huge populations, I have to wonder how much control government actually has in such a situation, and how fast can people be helped to understand their situation and begin to take better courses of action. Conservation buys a little time, as does reduced birth rate, though normal population reduction won’t follow for a number of decades, and fossil fuels are expected to be depleted sooner.
Conservation and reducing demand will be important parts of the solution. Somehow we have to curb demand, and the best way, short of forcibly decreasing the standard of living of huge numbers of people, is educate them. Education is relatively inexpensive, and we already have global communications systems capable of disseminating information quite quickly. What we need is public (and resulting government) will to look at the facts and probabilities, and change priorities quickly. Movies like “An Inconvenient Truth” get a lot of attention, and have certainly raised consciousness of at least some of our problems among their viewers, for example, but their messages are too narrow and fail to focus on the need to lower birthrates. Also, this message needs to be spread much more widely and taken much more seriously. Conservative idealogues and pundits who keep their heads in the sand or fight to deny what many are observing are not helping.
Individual action will be essential at many levels. I know I have harped on this theme a lot in this blog, but I can’t help repeating it as I don’t see a better way: we all need to be communicating with our government representatives and letting them know what we think is important, and what we need them to do, regularly, until we see the changes begin to occur. Overpopulation is still being widely swept under the rug and ignored by politicians and the media, and that needs to change as soon as possible. Please make your representatives aware of what is most important, and what you want them to do, or they may never know, and will keep on doing what they’ve been doing until now, making our future road rockier.
As always, I welcome your comments.
interesting and related information:
Exponential Growth – Bartlett’s Law, May 10, 1999, J. B. Calvert
Who Knew?, Dec. 14, 2007, George Kenney w. Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett
Oil Crises Delay – A World Oil Price Forecast, Vincent Ramirez, July 1, 1999