Global warming and climate change are only pieces of the puzzle. The storm of media coverage and conflicting scientific data around global warming is overwhelming, but it is concealing very real problems we need to face if we are to ensure ourselves and our descendants can continue anything like the kind of lifestyles we have today. Climate change will happen, whether we cause it or not, and when it does, how prepared will we be? Energy supplies are a key factor, not only for our current relative comfort but as an enabler to our ability to deal with issues we will face in the short and long term. Where does this all lead, and what are our responsibilities as individuals? What can we do to ensure a better future?
The fact that we can build a bigger house, drive a big car, or have a big family doesn’t mean we should. In these days of huge disparities in economic status, with so many of us living lives of comfort and luxury undreamed of less than a century ago, it is easy to focus on the wonderful present and not think about the future. It is also easy to get used to how much easier our lives are than those of previous generations and take it all for granted. What we lose sight of, and that which poses the greatest risk to our own and our descendants’ futures, is how much our current lifestyles are based on cheap energy, and that more than 85% of that energy comes from extracting fossil fuels from the earth. We also fail to recognize the huge human population we have created on the planet, and its effects.
Fossil fuels have enabled our lifestyles, and the population explosion. Any species, given a surplus of food and comfortable conditions, increases its population. That is a natural fact. We haven’t succeeded and established our huge, advanced civilization just because we are intelligent. Not only have fossil fuels made it possible to live the way we do, but they have enabled us to propagate our species to a population that is quite possibly six times the number of any previous time in history. As a result, we are consuming the earth’s fossil fuels at an ever accelerating rate, not only because of our increasing numbers, but because we all naturally want to live the good life those fuels have made possible. In our pell-mell rush to better ourselves it is easy to forget that there is a limit to everything, and we are going to have to change our ways sooner or later, or Mother Nature (the laws of physics, etc.) will change them for us, and potentially in ways we won’t like. I think we can do this, but future success starts with each of us, now.
How smart are we as individuals and as a species? With obvious limits facing us, and recognizing that we have already placed an inordinately huge burden on the planet’s resources, we have to ponder the most important question in history: Are we smart enough as species to anticipate and plan for the future, control our population size and resource use, and achieve a smooth transition to a sustainable world situation that allows us to handle the changes in the earth nature will inevitably create for us?
Climate change is inevitable, whether human activities are a factor in it or not. The earth has had ice ages and hot periods, with rising and falling oceans and shifting patterns of drought, since billions of years before the human species evolved. That will not stop for us. We can sustain ourselves with our creative and constructive nature, combined with the natural resources at our disposal, but how long we can continue in our present numbers is questionable.
Cheap energy enabled us to our present state, but that will change. We won’t run out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future, they will just become more expensive. We are already seeing energy prices on the rise, and the only question facing us is how fast they will rise, how much will they fluctuate, and can we achieve a rate of exhaustion that keeps our situation stable enough for long enough that we can plan and act effectively to avoid big problems.
Long term planning and action is sorely needed. What frightens me most is the short term focus in our society, especially in the powerful business and government organizations that rule our economic world, and the lack of long term planning we need to ensure a continuation of our relatively pleasant existence. We need changes in our political and government systems that will reward long term planning and action. We need to actively manage corporate and government incentives by letting them know what we expect, rewarding good behavior with business and votes and punishing bad behavior by withholding them. We must each demand appropriate regulations and regulatory action from our government representatives to ensure corporate behavior doesn’t work against our long term interests. (By long term I mean decades, and possibly centuries, not years.)
Alternative energy sources available today don’t come close to meeting our needs, now or in the future. If you look at the amount of energy we use per person in the developed countries, and compare it with the total energy available from wind, solar, water, and nuclear power sources, it is clear that without fossil fuels we are in big trouble. We would have to reduce our energy use to less than one sixth of our current average to balance the system without fossil fuels, a level I bet few of us can really imagine. It is obvious we will need new sources of energy, and that we need a lot of research done now, to have new energy supplies in ten to fifty years from now, during which time fossil fuels will become a great deal more expensive.
Major improvements in efficiency and conservation are needed immediately. We also need to put a major, full court press on conservation to reduce our needs greatly and quickly. If we don’t make major progress in the next few years, the situation will become worse, and in another decade or so we will need a World War II-scale effort to hold off major problems that may threaten us with extensive loss of life. (Remember that in WWII there was government rationing and corporations gave up all profit for the duration of the war, among other sacrifices, unlike in more recent “wars”.)
The developing countries have the highest birthrates, and need our help now. While birthrates are not too high now in the developed countries, high birthrates and explosively-expanding populations are a major concern in the developing countries. The factors that have the highest correlation with falling birthrates are education, economic status (personal comfort and security), and family planning. The cost of providing these types of assistance to developing countries now is potentially hundreds or even thousands of times less than the cost of dealing with the alternatives: famine, natural disasters, wars, immigration, just to name a few. The governments of the developed countries need to make serious investment in these measures to offset future world problems, but it won’t happen unless we tell our government representatives we want them to make these things happen, and follow up by voting accordingly.
A transition to a sustainable and comfortable future is possible with individual action. The sensible approach to all this is not to panic, but to learn as much as possible and take action both at home and elsewhere. We can make choices every day that will make our lives more efficient and save us money in the process. We can think ahead and plan long term for our own lives. Changing our understanding now will change our expectations so they will be easier to meet in the future. We can save now for a better future, invest in more ecologically responsible choices, and share with our children and anyone who will listen what we know about the realities we are facing and how we are planning to deal with them. We can encourage our children to get the best educations possible, and to maximize their creativity in pursuit of bettering the world situation.
Political action at the individual level can make positive change happen, and we must each do what we can. Withdrawing from the political system or denying that we can exhaust natural resources or affect our environment does nobody good. We must recognize that our current political and business systems have evolved to emphasize short term thinking, and that it is long term thinking and action that will move our world towards a sustainable situation. We must actively lobby our government representatives at every level to make the long term their primary focus, and we must reward those who take the right actions with our votes and support.
We need to take action every day against media who are hurting us rather than helping us to a better future. We must give major media who focus on the short term issues, provide sensationalistic news (or non-news), and broadcast politically- and economically-motivated propaganda the ratings they deserve (near zero) by refusing to watch them, listen to them, or give them any of our attention. Every TV, radio, and computer is fully capable of switching channels or turning off media who are keeping us focused on empty, short term topics, distracting us away from what is really important, dumb-ing us down, and trying to convince us that our votes are worthless.
Global warming is a distraction – we have a responsibility to the future. We must learn, vote, and act to “move the needle” every day in favor of a sustainable future for ourselves and our descendants. We’ve only got one world, but … are we smart enough to manage it? Only time will tell, but the situation to date has become worrisome, and we are each responsible for the futures of ourselves and our descendants.
As always, I welcome your comments. – Tim